In sniper trial, prayers, calls for help, car sightings

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - On the day after five people were killed by sniper fire in Maryland and Washington, D.C., Caroline Seawell went shopping for Halloween decorations. She had just loaded a scarecrow and a wreath into her minivan outside a crafts store when pain suddenly shot through her back.

"At that point, when I slammed the door, I also felt pain through my back and through my front, and then I heard the noise of [the bullet] hitting the car, and I knew that I had been shot immediately," Seawell, 44, testified in court yesterday, her voice cracking. "I said a prayer that God would not let me die."

She believes her prayer was answered.

Even though the bullet severely damaged her liver and lungs before exiting under her right breast and plunging into her car, Seawell, a mother of two, survived the attack at a Michael's parking lot in Fredericksburg, Va. She showed no aftereffects of the attack as she strode to the witness stand yesterday, one of the few survivors of the sniper attacks, though she testified that her body still contained bullet fragments.

Prosecutors have said they will present ballistics evidence that will connect the bullet that hit Seawell with a rifle found under the back seat of John Allen Muhammad's car when he was arrested on Oct. 24 last year. Seawell's shooting was one of 13 last October that have been linked to Muhammad, 42, and teen-ager Lee Boyd Malvo.

Three other shootings from that month were also presented yesterday to jurors hearing the case against Muhammad. Witnesses to all three shootings said they say Muhammad's blue Chevrolet Caprice near the scenes, though none was able to place Muhammad at those locations.

Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the death of Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was killed Oct. 9, 2002, at a gas station near Manassas, Va. Prosecutors are introducing evidence from other shootings outside Virginia, contending that the attacks are relevant because, they say, Muhammad used them in an attempt to extort $10 million from the government. The strategy invokes a Virginia anti-terrorism law that could lead to the death penalty for Muhammad.

Jurors first heard evidence yesterday in the Oct. 3 death of Sarah Ramos, 34, who was shot in the neck while sitting on a bench in the Leisure World shopping center in Silver Spring. Among those who testified yesterday was Ralph Sheldon, a Leisure World retirement community resident who was walking to the shopping center that morning to mail a letter.

As he approached the post office, he noticed a pretty young lady sitting on a bench by herself. "As I was standing in front of the mail box, putting the letter in the box, there was a huge explosion," Sheldon testified. "I turned around and there she was, slumped over and blood was pouring out of her head."

Sheldon said he ran to a nearby restaurant to call 911. On the tape of that call, played in court yesterday, Sheldon told the dispatcher that he thought the woman had shot herself. In court yesterday, he seemed embarrassed by that statement and he said he wasn't sure why he had such a thought.

Prosecutor James A. Willett offered him an explanation: "It wouldn't occur to you there was a sniper."

Another witness to that shooting, Kerry Turner, said she saw Muhammad's Caprice in the shopping center parking lot shortly before Ramos was shot. The car was parked directly across from the bench where Ramos was sitting, and the trunk of the car was facing the bench.

Turner walked into her nearby office and looked out the window seconds later to see Ramos slumped on the bench. She went out to see what had happened, but had to turn away when she got close. "I saw she had been shot in the head," Turner said.

Prosecutors then moved on to a shooting that occurred just over one hour later on Oct. 3. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 34, was shot in her back while vacuuming her minivan at a Shell station in Kensington. Authorities think the shot was fired from an adjacent parking lot, a distance of about 50 yards.

An accountant who was near the gas station shortly before the shooting said he saw Muhammad's car at an intersection nearby. But he didn't report the sighting to police until Oct. 24, when Muhammad was arrested and his car was shown on television. The accountant said he had been looking for suspicious white-box trucks instead.

Paramedics who arrived at the scene said they waited to work on the victim until police had secured the area. And even when they were told it was safe, they noticed officers were in riot gear, wearing shields, and they hustled Rivera's body into their ambulance. The bullet had shattered three ribs and shredded both lobes of her left lung.

Finally yesterday, prosecutors told of the murder of Pascal Charlot, 72, a retired carpenter and father of five who was shot in his chest while walking along Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., on the evening of Oct. 3. It would be the last of five killings that day - the bloodiest day in the sniper's rampage.

Prosecutors played a frantic 911 call and witnesses said people in the area panicked, with one woman yelling at her husband to get into their car. A witness said that a police officer who arrived on the scene moments after the shooting shouted out, "Get out of here! There's a sniper on the loose!"

But amid the confusion, two people said they saw a dark Caprice roll away from a parking spot across an intersection from where Charlot fell, its lights off. Once again, witnesses said the rear of the car was facing the shooting scene - supporting a police theory that the shots were fired through a hole cut into the car's trunk.

"It was very dark and it was tinted and it just barely creeped off seconds after I heard the sound" of the shot, said Karl Largie, an employee of the Tropicana Restaurant across Georgia Avenue from the shooting. Largie was in the back parking lot when he heard the gunshot and then saw the car glide away.

Two hours earlier, a Washington police officer had stopped Muhammad for running two stop signs. The officer, Henry Gallagher, ran the New Jersey plates on the Caprice and they checked out clean, so he let him go with only a warning. Gallagher said he saw only Muhammad in the car and no one else.

The next afternoon, Caroline Seawell would be shot in Fredericksburg. That morning, she had had breakfast with her husband at a bagel shop. They talked about the shootings of the previous day, she said, having no idea she would be the next victim.

While she lay in the Michael's parking lot that afternoon, someone brought her a pillow from inside the store to make her more comfortable. She remained conscious the entire time, until she reached a hospital and was given drugs before being treated.

"She had a severe liver injury, and her chest area was full of blood from the injury," said Dr. Keith H. Beier of Mary Washington Hospital. He said there was shrapnel under her breast and bullet fragments throughout. "Frequently," he said, "people die from injuries this bad."