Shootings recall deadlier D.C sniper rampage of 2002

Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad is sentenced to death in Prince William County, Va., in 2004.
Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad is sentenced to death in Prince William County, Va., in 2004.(STEVE HELBER / AFP/Getty Images)

When Paul LaRuffa was shot Sept. 5, 2002, after he closed his restaurant in Clinton for the night, his assailants were not yet known, much less infamous.

It would take five killings over the course of 17 hours the next month before it became clear that at least one shooter was on the loose in the greater Washington area. They came to be known as the Beltway snipers.


The shootings that led to the arrest this week of Hong Young, 35, brought back memories of that terrifying time when John Allen Muhammad and teenage protege Lee Boyd Malvo fired indiscriminately at people. They shot at 13, killing 10, over a three-week period in October 2002 and ultimately were linked to at least 11 other shootings, including LaRuffa's.

Now 68 and living in Hollywood, Md., LaRuffa still remembers "mind-boggling flashbacks" and nightmares until Muhammad and Malvo were captured.


"Things got better after they were caught and I knew they weren't out there," he said.

Anne Arundel Police Chief Timothy J. Altomare, at a news conference on the Young case Wednesday, noted the parallels: "As I look around the room today, I'm struck by the fact that most of us here were probably in some way, shape or form aware of the events 15 years ago ... with the D.C. sniper case."

The Beltway sniper killings began in Montgomery County, in broad daylight, and the locales included homes, stores, gas stations and schools. As fear descended over the area, businesses closed, school activities were canceled and simply pumping gas or wheeling a shopping cart across a parking lot became unnerving.

This week's shootings, by contrast, led to little widespread unease. Many didn't know a gunman was on the loose. While police released information about individual shootings, they did not publicly connect the cases until shortly before they arrested a suspect.

Moreover, the targets were mostly buildings and cars. Two people suffered injuries that were not life threatening after their vehicle was shot and glass from the shattered windshield struck them.

Police this time around had a much better environment in which to investigate, said Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Health & Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

"It's important that there was no panic with in the community," said Herron, who was a major with the Maryland State Police at the time of the D.C. sniper investigation. "It sounds like they were very efficient and did a good job of arresting someone before anyone was [seriously] hurt."

In the D.C. sniper case, once it became clear that five seemingly random killings over two days were connected, intense media coverage began. Herron said the regular briefings from police were necessary to keep the public informed and as safe as possible, even if the publicity hampered investigators.

Muhammad and Malvo started taunting police — they left a "Death" tarot card at one scene, instructing police to "Call me God."

"You don't want to tip off the suspect," Herron said. "It's like playing poker. You don't want to show your hand until you have to."

Other changes since the Beltway sniper case, including the proliferation of surveillance cameras and increased information sharing among law enforcement agencies, likely aided investigators pursuing Young, experts said.

Police had released surveillance videos showing a blue or gray Lincoln Town Car near some of the shooting sites over the past two weeks. Young was arrested Tuesday night after police stopped a car matching that description.


Back when he was one of three lead commanders of the multi-agency D.C. sniper investigation, Michael Bouchard said, cameras were nowhere near as prevalent as they are now.

"You can't go to too many places without a camera now," said Bouchard, then the agent in charge of the Baltimore office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Then it was mainly banks and entryways to buildings," he said. "Now there are toll roads where they take a picture of your plate."

The five shootings believed to be the work of one gunman took place at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, the AMC Theater at The Mall in Columbia, Arundel Mills mall, a Walmart in Laurel and on the Intercounty Connector — the toll booth-free highway that opened its first stretch in 2011 and has cameras to photograph vehicle tags to bill drivers.

Bouchard, who now heads a private security firm, Security Dynamics Group, also said jurisdictions now share information with greater ease.

"Years ago, shootings in Anne Arundel, for example, might not be known elsewhere," he said.

Software programs allow police investigating a shooting to look for similar ones elsewhere that might be related, he said. After the D.C. sniper investigation, Bouchard said, some software manufacturers interviewed law enforcement agencies about their experience to develop programs that could help them in future incidents.

"The information collection system is better now," he said. "Then, there were pieces of information that were out there, but we didn't have a way to bring them together."

The two cases do share similarities. Police then and now say they linked the shootings through ballistics tests of the weapons and shell casings. However, in both cases, there were no obvious links between the targets, making it harder for police to identify a motive.

"It was a true whodunit," Herron said of the D.C. sniper case.

"Did the victims know one another, were they the same race, were they people doing the same thing?" Bouchard said. "There was no theme."

As the shootings continued, security was increased at government buildings such as the Capitol and the White House. Gas station owners tried to shield customers by hanging tarps around their pumps. Meanwhile, everyone was on the lookout — mistakenly, as it turned out — for a white van that was linked to the shootings.

Finally, police matched a fingerprint at one shooting scene to Malvo's and learned of his relationship with Muhammad — who had registered a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice in New Jersey. Police spread the information and asked the public to report sightings.

Early on Oct. 24, a refrigerator repairman saw the Caprice at the Interstate 70 rest stop near Myersville. Police swarmed the scene and took Muhammad and Malvo into custody without incident.

Malvo said at his trial in Maryland that the pair had planned to travel to Baltimore and kill a pregnant woman and a police officer. At the police officer's funeral, he said, they would plant improvised explosive devices, similar to roadside bombs used in Afghanistan and Iraq, to cause more deaths.

Muhammad, a Desert Storm veteran, was sentenced to death and executed in 2009.

Malvo, who was 17 when the attacks began, received 10 sentences of life without parole and has been imprisoned in Virginia.


Muhammad's former wife, Mildred Muhammad, 55, lives in Prince George's County. She didn't know much about the recent shootings but remembers the intensity of 15 years ago.

"It took about a year for me to be completely healed from all of it — the trauma, the night sweats, checking the rooftop, being scared all the time," she said. "It took time to calm myself to understand that trauma is over and done with."

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