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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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
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.
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.
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 via lethal injection on November 10, 2009. He made no final statement.
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.”