For relatives, verdicts mark beginning of end

Sniper shootings coverage
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Bob Meyers sat in his blue Hyundai yesterday afternoon, letting the engine run to charge his well-worn cell phone that he used as the lifeline to share the news, one call after another.

"The verdict was as severe as it could be on all four counts," he calmly said into the voicemail of his oldest brother, Larry. "If you want to talk further, give me a call."

More than a year after their brother Dean H. Meyers was shot as he pumped gas at a station near Manassas, Va., John Allen Muhammad stood expressionless as the jury found him guilty for his role in the shootings that claimed the lives of Meyers and 12 others. Behind him, Bob Meyers and his wife, Lori, joined more than a dozen victims' relatives, some who wept as the words were read, others who held onto one another, gaining comfort from those who were strangers before Muhammad's killing rampage threw them together.

It hasn't been easy for them to listen to the testimony - a graphic and wrenching litany of pain and suffering. For some, it has been another step in the healing process. For others, it has been a painful reliving of the grief that struck so hard, so suddenly, so senselessly.

"It brings the whole thing back again, like the day it happened, even though it's been a year," said Vijay Walekar, whose older brother, cabdriver Premkumar Walekar, 54, was fatally shot at an Aspen Hill gas station on Oct. 3, 2002, the second and deadliest day of the sniper attacks. "It's still a nightmare. I still cannot believe he's dead."

Standing on the courthouse steps, Vickie Snider, the sister of James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., who was killed that Oct. 3 morning as he mowed the lawn outside a Rockville car dealership, expressed gratitude for the work of those who deliberated Muhammad's fate.

"I think the evidence spoke for itself and I think the jury could only come to the conclusion they came to," she said. "We have put our faith in the jury and know they made the right decision."

Bob Meyers and his wife spent the morning in a room set aside for victims' relatives - a tense place as about 30 waited yesterday for word that the jury had reached its decision. Larry Meyers had been at his brother's side, but left to attend the trial of Muhammad's co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, who is facing capital murder charges in the death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin in a courtroom 15 miles away.

The relatives aren't done waiting. Yesterday marked only the beginning of the end for them. The jury went back to work in the afternoon and will hear testimony to decide if Muhammad should be sentenced to death for his crimes.

If this isn't a death penalty case, Meyers said that he isn't sure what is.

"I believe that capital punishment is an appropriate response in certain crimes and I must say I can't think of too many more heinous crimes than this one," he said.

Kwang Szuszka, the sister of Hong Im Ballenger, who was killed Sept. 23 last year in a shooting in Baton Rouge, La., that ballistics tests linked to the sniper's rifle, said: "I'm still looking for death penalty for justice."

Bob Meyers will have the chance to tell the jury how his life has been affected by the loss of his brother. The relatives of other victims will not, Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ruled.

They all have stories to tell. There would be Premkumar Walekar's daughter, who graduated from college without her father. There would be Franklin's daughter, who gave birth without her mother by her side.

"Certainly everyone has a gaping hole and a story to tell," Bob Meyers said.

Szuszka won't have the chance to describe to the jury what her sister meant to her. But outside the courthouse, she told reporters: "She was a wonderful person, a great mom, great wife, great sister. She helped so many people. She didn't have much, but she always helped those who had less than her."