The Beltway Snipers: Agents of Chaos

Batman can be the source of a great deal of wisdom.
          “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
–Alfred Pennyworth
The Dark Knight
John Allen Muhammad was a modern-day monster.

Isa Nichols was a friend of Mildred Muhammad, the ex-wife of a former American soldier named John Allen Muhammad. John and Mildred’s marriage was tumultuous and violent, and Mildred’s friend Isa had encouraged her to press for a divorce. This angered John.

Lee Boyd Malvo was born in Jamaica but befriended by a cold-blooded killer who brought him to America illegally.

Isa’s niece Keenya Nicole Cook was visiting her aunt in Tacoma, Washington, in February of 2002 along with her six-month-old daughter Angeleah. Setting her baby on a changing table she answered the front door to find a 17-year-old Jamaican named Lee Boyd Malvo. Malvo produced a .45-caliber handgun and shot the woman in the face. Thus began one of the most brutal killing sprees in American history.

The Origins of a Monster

John Allen Williams had a rough childhood.

John Allen Muhammad was born in 1960 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as John Allen Williams. At age three Williams’ mother died of breast cancer, and his father left town. His maternal grandfather and an aunt subsequently raised the boy. In 1978 Williams enlisted in the Louisiana Army National Guard and trained as a Combat Engineer. Seven years later he transferred to the Regular Army. In 1991 he deployed to Kuwait in support of the First Gulf War.

Williams used his military experience as a foundation for crime and murder.

While in uniform Williams qualified Expert with the M16A1 rifle and trained as a mechanic, truck driver, and metalworker. He would later put these skills to much darker use. In 1987, at age 27, John Allen Williams joined the Nation of Islam. In 1994 Williams was honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant after seventeen years of service. In 1995 he acted as a security officer for the “Million Man March” in Washington, DC. 

Much of Muhammad’s adult life orbited around trying to regain control of his children.

Williams was married twice. In 1999 he kidnapped his three children and took them to Antigua. During this time he met Lee Boyd Malvo, the young Jamaican man he later described as his stepson. In 2001 Williams officially changed his name to Muhammad, and formally gave himself over to the Dark Side.

John Allen Muhammad was a great fan of Osama bin-Laden and his murderous band of psychopaths.

John Allen Muhammad expressed admiration for Osama bin-Laden and studied al-Qaeda, modeling their behavior. He stated that he fully approved of the September 11th attacks. His later attempts to extort money were intended to establish “a camp in Canada where homeless children could train as terrorists.”

The sordid tale of John Allen Muhammad’s domestic woes speaks volumes concerning the ineffectiveness of legal documents to protect the innocent. This is Muhammad’s wife Mildred with two of her children.

Along the way, Muhammad’s wife Mildred was granted a restraining order against him. This was one of several pyrrhic legal efforts that failed miserably to thwart this maniac. Muhammad and Malvo eventually murdered seventeen people, most of them randomly.

This Brilliant Darkness

Muhammad and Malvo used this post-ban XM-15 rifle to terrorize the American landscape in 2002.

Starting with Keenya Cook in Tacoma, Muhammad and Malvo killed another six people in seven states over eight months. Along the way, they critically injured a further seven. They used a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle for most of the shootings. Then at 5:20 pm on October 2, 2002, they fired a round through a window at Michael’s craft store in Aspen Hill, Maryland. No one was hurt, but thus began a reign of terror that would paralyze the DC area for three interminable weeks.

It was the violent disruption of such familiar Americana that made the Beltway Snipers so horrifying. Their first DC-area killing was in the parking lot of a supermarket.

An hour after the Michael’s shooting, the pair shot and killed James Martin, a 55-year-old program analyst for NOAA outside a supermarket. The following morning they killed four random strangers in less than two hours.

America’s familiar spaces had suddenly become killing fields.

39-year-old landscaper Sonny Montgomery was killed as he mowed grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall. 54-year-old part-time cab driver Prem Walekar was shot while he refueled his taxi. 34-year-old Sarah Ramos was murdered as she sat at a bus stop reading a book. 25-year-old Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was shot as she vacuumed her minivan. Later that evening a 72-year-old retired carpenter named Pascal Charlot was killed while out for a walk.

Each crowded crime scene had been meticulously researched and carefully selected. The innate congestion made timely identification of the shooter all but impossible.

This first day’s victims represented a fairly homogeneous cross-section of American society. Each was killed with a single bullet fired from a significant distance. News of these random shootings terrified the nation.

White utility vans are quite literally everywhere. One man who intentionally lied about having seen a man with an AK47 outside a Home Depot near one of the scenes was eventually prosecuted for making a false police report.

Initial reports were that there had been a white van seen near each of the murder sites. The entire country became suspicious of white utility vans. I recall counting fifteen over the course of five minutes while driving through my little Southern town. White panel vans are ubiquitous. However, some astute witnesses also reported seeing a blue Chevrolet Caprice. This was a critical observation.

This young man narrowly survived being shot by the Beltway Snipers. His testimony proved to be a critical piece of the prosecution.

The two men then began hunting farther afield and killing every two to three days. A 43-year-old homemaker was shot in the parking lot of a shopping mall. 13-year-old student Iran Brown was grievously wounded. He had previously been kicked off the bus for eating candy. As a result, his aunt, a nurse who had just dropped him off at school, administered first aid and rushed him to a nearby hospital, saving his life.

This tarot card was intentionally left behind at the scene of the Iran Brown shooting.

At the scene of this shooting police found a tarot death card inscribed with “Call me God” on the front. On the back was written, “For you Mr. Police,” “Code: Call me God,” and “Do not release to the press.”

The terror of the Beltway shootings changed the way Americans lived their lives.

Three more victims died over the following week. Gas stations erected tarps around their pumps, and schools kept their children indoors. Field trips and sporting events were canceled, while government buildings tightened security. Americans scuttled about, minimizing the time they spent exposed. Law Enforcement swarmed the area.

Once Law Enforcement identified the two shooters and tied them to this blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice their fates were sealed.

One of the shooters made a phone call from a payphone boasting of his cleverness. Police traced the call but missed the two by minutes. The killers left long rambling notes at the scenes of subsequent murders, one of which demanded $10 million as a ransom to stop the bloodshed. Their thirst for attention eventually pointed the FBI toward Muhammad and Malvo. Once they were tied to their blue Caprice the two psychopaths were doomed.

The Car

John Allen Muhammad bought this 1990 Caprice specifically intending to turn it into a shooting platform.

The blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice was a former police stakeout vehicle that Muhammad had modified into a rolling sniper hide. Muhammad bought the car via auction at Sure Shot Auto Sales in New Jersey. Before bidding he had crawled inside the trunk for a close inspection.

The adaptation the two killers made to the vehicle was inspired. Lee Boyd Malvo drew this diagram of the car’s interior while in prison.

Muhammad and Malvo modified the back seat of the vehicle to allow entry into the trunk from within the car. Both men took their turns behind the rifle. They used handheld radios to communicate.

Muhammad cut a small firing port out of the back of the car.

Muhammad removed a small portion of the rear of the vehicle to form a firing port and rested the muzzle of his rifle on a glove to keep it steady. They spray painted the inside of the trunk dark blue to minimize interior glare.

The Gun

The XM-15 rifle was a stripped-down post-ban gun without any “assault weapon” features.

The Bushmaster XM-15 rifle was a post-ban weapon with a fixed stock. The gun had no flash suppressor or bayonet lug. The rifle included an EOTech Holosight, a folding bipod, and a twenty-round magazine.

The gun was stolen, the mastermind was legally prohibited from touching a firearm, and the younger of the two was in the country illegally. If ever there were poster children for the ineffectiveness of gun control legislation Muhammad and Malvo were they.

Malvo actually shoplifted the rifle from Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma during business hours. Because of his restraining order, John Allen Muhammad was restricted from purchasing or possessing a firearm. As Malvo was an illegal alien he was a prohibited person as well. Despite the many labyrinthine rules crafted to keep them unarmed, Malvo and Muhammad had ready access to numerous firearms. Malvo later testified that they spent as much as twelve hours a day practicing at a shooting range. John Allen Muhammad trained Malvo in weapons handling until they could operate as a team with military precision.

The Rest of the Story

The pair shot a man and stole this laptop early in their spree. They used the machine to maintain detailed maps of their shooting positions and facilitate a fast egress. Fingerprints helped connect the shooters to their crimes.

 Police were overwhelmed with tips, so much so that when the actual killers tried to contact authorities they had a tough time getting through. Eventually, Muhammad admitted to a robbery/murder in Alabama in an effort to establish his credibility. With that information, the FBI identified both men via fingerprint and DNA evidence.

Police and concerned citizens improvised a quick roadblock that hemmed the murderers’ vehicle in at an I70 rest stop. A SWAT team took the pair into custody without incident.

Once the shooters and the car were identified detailed descriptions were released to the public. Around 3 am on October 24, 2002, a passerby named Whitney Donahue noticed a suspicious blue Caprice parked at a rest stop off of Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland. Responding officers blocked the vehicle in using police cruisers and a commandeered tractor-trailer. A SWAT team breached the car to find both Muhammad and Malvo sleeping. The primary murder weapon and support equipment were found in their possession.

What many took to be an organized terrorist act was actually just the depraved acts of a man trying to get away with killing his estranged wife.

Malvo later admitted that the whole bloody mess was designed to deflect attention from the planned murder of Muhammad’s ex-wife. Muhammad intended to kill “six white people per day for thirty days” to establish the spree and then shoot Mildred to regain custody of his three children. Muhammad supposed that if his ex-wife died as part of this larger reign of terror there would be no reason to suspect her estranged husband.

John Allen Muhammad died on this table for his crimes.

John Allen Muhammad died via lethal injection on November 10, 2009. He made no final statement.

Lee Boyd Malvo was just a teenager when he helped kill seventeen people. He will never again breathe free air.

Lee Boyd Malvo will spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement at the Red Onion Supermax Prison in Fairfax, Virginia. In a 2012 interview with the Washington Post Malvo, then 27, said, “I was a monster. If you look up the definition that’s what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives.”

Malvo is apparently a fairly competent artist. He drew this sketch of his training with Muhammad from his prison cell. I was shocked to find that his autographed work is for sale on Twitter.
This was the round of .223 ammunition found in the chamber of the killers’ rifle when they were finally arrested. Had they not been caught it likely would have been fired the following day.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

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  • Bill August 23, 2019, 3:28 pm

    Who remembers the public face of the investigation, Chief Moose? I remember him moving on to another jurisdiction under cloudy circumstances, and then becoming a professional plaintiff.

  • Brandi Smith August 22, 2019, 9:45 am

    I was working for the local school system and I remember keeping our heads down when traveling in Aspen Hill for a while. Did not the MCPD send shock troops to bang on homeowner’s doors, asking if they owned AR-15 rifles? And, attempt to confiscate without a warrant? And, not in a very polite way?

  • allfour1 August 19, 2019, 5:21 pm

    Maybe if more laws were written, things like this will finally curb. Need be, they could borrow surplus regulations from CA, NY, MA and IL.

    • MaxEffectUSA August 20, 2019, 5:22 am

      Murder has been taking place from the beginning of time. No law is going to stop evil. If laws stopped evil why do we need police? “One more law” is just a warm and fuzzy for politicians. Teaching the “value” of life in families and church might slow it down.

    • carrier group August 24, 2019, 8:12 pm

      Maybe more laws like “you can’t have a flash suppressor, telescoping stock or bayonet lug on your rifle”? Just think how many lives were saved by these criminals who obeyed the law against drive-by bayonettings.

  • Bob August 19, 2019, 12:43 pm

    You have a lot of interesting information from open sources here. The MC Police were actually looking for a white box truck, rather than white cargo vans.

    There were three final suspects towards the end, and Muhammad was one of them (one of them was actually a dentist who had an AR-15 in his car trunk). And the confrontation between the ATF and the state police on the final day of the crimes showed the local police to win, when they arrested the duo by the Rt 70 rest stop; DOJ and the Treasury TEAs ordered the ATF to stand down, and not to enter the scene first, as they wanted it tried at the state level. It was later moved from MD to VA because VA had the death penalty. The MD state police supervisor who blocked the ATF agents and ordered to stop on the highway was a brave man.

    By the way the jail where Malvo is, you have the wrong location, but the right state.

  • Louis Fulton August 19, 2019, 10:08 am

    Do not be so sure that he is in prison for life. This illegal was tried as a juvenile (though almost 18). Already efforts are being directed in his behalf, criticizing “a child”, and a minority, for being cruelly sentenced. He was under the influence of another.

    Also, the brave police took over an hour to come to the car when they were called. They kept telling the person to go over to the car, repeatedly, to confirm the licence. They needed time to go home, put on their SWAT stuff, and fire up their tank.

    • InSyncErator August 24, 2019, 8:15 pm

      Plus, this cherub was an illegal alien. He deserves to be released immediately into the sanctuary of Montgomery County MD.

  • Bill August 19, 2019, 9:10 am

    Excellent article, very well written……… thanks…………….

  • Lee T Macon August 19, 2019, 7:33 am

    No difference between these two and the other home grown terrorists killing people these days.

  • Adam Freeman August 19, 2019, 5:23 am

    Thanks for providing this article about the Beltway snipers of 2002. At the time, I was taking coursework at GMU in evening classes and would return home after dark. I happened to commute past the site of one of the shootings immediately after it took place, at a Home Depot on Rt 50 at Seven Corners in Falls Church, Fairfax County. Police and first responders from many agencies kept flying past traffic to get there – it was definitely a very tense time for us in NOVA. One correction I would like to point out, is that Red Onion Supermax prison is located in Wise County, not Fairfax County. Wise County is in the extreme southwestern corner of Virginia, bordering close to Kentucky. Thanks for your time.

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