Victims' relatives share pain of trial, joy of verdict

Sniper shootings coverage
As the first guilty verdict was read in a Montgomery County courtroom yesterday, Oladell Martin covered her mouth and nose with her hands.

Tipped with long orange fingernails, they shook as the next guilty verdict was announced. Seeming to blink back tears, she lowered her hands to her lap. Vickie Snider, who sat behind Martin, patted her back as another "guilty" was read, and then three more.

Martin, who lives in St. Louis, and Snider lost family members in the 2002 Washington area sniper rampage. Together, they sat through the month-long murder trial of John Allen Muhammad.

Although some family members said it was difficult to watch Muhammad repeatedly deny any role in the killings, they said they were pleased with the final outcome: Muhammad's conviction of, and Lee Boyd Malvo's agreement to plead guilty to, all six Montgomery County murders.

"We may never know the whole truth, but we do know without a doubt, 100 percent, that Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad are the ones who committed the murders," Snider said.

The six victims included Martin's brother, James D. Martin, 55, who was shot outside a Wheaton grocery store, and Snider's brother, James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., 39, who was struck down as he mowed grass outside a Rockville car dealership.

Sitting in the same row as Martin was Vijay Walekar of Gaithersburg, brother of Premkumar A. Walekar, 54, a cab driver who was killed while pumping gas. Wearing a dark gray suit, Walekar gravely stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read. After the final "guilty," Martin sighed. All three smiled.

The family members of the men who had been shot during the 2002 sniper rampage had formed a sort of support group during the trial.

"We've been together all the time. It helps us when we find lunch or dinner together," Walekar said. "It lightens up the sorrow."

Martin, during a news conference after the verdicts were announced, said that Snider had become like a sister to her. She thanked Snider, saying the Rockville resident "welcomed me into her life and into her home."

Before the trial began, some questioned whether it was worth the expense and effort to try Muhammad and Malvo because they had been convicted of sniper slayings in Virginia. Muhammad is on death row there; Malvo is serving life prison terms without parole. The cost of housing and providing security for the pair in Montgomery County exceeded $600,000.

But, for the relatives of the snipers' victims, there was no question.

"I don't know why somebody would say that," Walekar said, adding that each of the victims deserved "a day in court."

Nelson Rivera, who lost his wife, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, said yesterday in a telephone interview from California that the trial made sense to him as well, because it was important for the families to have a sense of closure.

But viewing the trial was not easy.

"It was ridiculous," he said of Muhammad's defense. "I still don't understand that, but I guess that's the law."

Rivera, who attended a few days of the trial before having to return to Sacramento to work and care for his 7-year-old daughter, said he felt that he had to represent his wife in the courtroom. He said he plans to fly in for the sentencing.

"I am still having a hard time," he said, but attending the sentencing will "help me to know the guys who killed my wife [are] going to pay for it. I know she's not going to come back, but ... "

The other two sniper victims in the county were Maria Sarah Ramos, 34, and Conrad E. Johnson, 35.

Walekar said he attended the trial every day before heading to his night job, where he worked until 7:30 a.m., then returned to the courtroom at 9:30 a.m. But more difficult than going without sleep was listening to Muhammad.

"It was hard for us to take," Walekar said outside the courtroom. He later added, "I don't see how he could stand in front of everyone and say how he didn't do [anything]. They caught him red-handed."

Muhammad faces six consecutive sentences of life without parole, but, for Walekar, that is not enough.

"I wish they had the death penalty," he said.

Whatever Muhammad's fate, Walekar said, "The pain is always going to be there. I will always have the memories."