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Terror in October: A Look Back at the DC Sniper Attacks
Ten years later, survivors, victims’ loved ones, police, doctors, and others tell an oral history of the month when fear ruled Washington—and how the shooters were caught. By Alicia C. Shepard
Comments () | Published September 26, 2012

Ten years ago, a man and a teenage boy brought Washington to a standstill over the course of 23 days by randomly killing people engaged in everyday activities such as pumping gas. Only a year earlier, the area had weathered the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, which killed 184; shortly after that, mysterious letters with anthrax spores were mailed to two US senators and several media outlets, killing five and infecting 17. Then the snipers.

The shooters turned out to be John Allen Muhammad, an angry man who had lost his three kids in a custody case, and Lee Boyd Malvo, a 17-year-old Jamaican immigrant. The pair spread terror from Richmond to Baltimore, making residents afraid to go grocery shopping, walk down the street, attend school sports events, live their lives.

By the time Muhammad and Malvo were captured at a Maryland rest stop on Interstate 70, they had killed ten people in the Washington area and wounded three more between October 2 and 24.

Prelude: September 2002

Paul LaRuffa of Hollywood, Maryland: "It was September 5. I owned a restaurant in Clinton. We closed at 10, and I left with two people about 10:20. I got in my car and shut the door. Seconds later, the driver's-side window exploded. All I saw was the flash of light from the gun. Then it got quiet. I was bleeding out of my chest and said to my friend, 'Dial 911.' The shooter grabbed the briefcase and computer and ran down the road.

"That was the start of the sniper, but we didn't know it. There was $3,500 in my briefcase from receipts that ended up financing their operation. I've always said it didn't start in October. Some guy came up, shot me, and left me for dead. Malvo later admitted it."

The snipers went to New Jersey and bought a 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice for $250. LaRuffa's restaurant was only a few blocks from where Muhammad's ex-wife, Mildred—with his three children—lived in fear that her husband would track her down and kill her.

"What's Going On?"

On October 2, Muhammad and Malvo began terrorizing the Washington area when they fatally gunned down James D. Martin, 55, a program analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at 6:02 pm at a Wheaton Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Nancy Demme, then Montgomery County Police spokeswoman: "I started as media director two weeks before Mr. Martin was killed. I was surprised Chief [Charles] Moose put me in that position—I had been seven years in vice. On the day Mr. Martin died, I asked the chief if I could go to a two-week training on being a public-information officer.

"I met with the chief that day. He said, 'You are going to be out there with the press 90 percent of the time; I'll be there 10 percent. I'm going to give you two mantras: Maximum disclosure with minimum delay, and feed the press or they'll make it up.' I had no idea what either of them meant. I left the meeting, went home, took off my uniform, got a call, and put my uniform back on.

"Mr. Martin was on his way to get something for a church function. A lot of people saw him go down, but no one saw the assault. It's always hard when you have nothing to give the media, but I couldn't explain what had happened."

See Also

A Sniper’s Ex-Wife Speaks
Mildred Muhammad was married to John Allen Muhammad for more than ten years. They divorced before the attacks because of his abuse.
Read more >>

23 Horrifying Days
A timeline of the snipers and victims.
Read more >>

On October 3, four people were gunned down in daylight by a Bushmaster XM15-E2S, a high-powered .223-caliber rifle. The day began with the murder of James "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, who was mowing the lawn of Fitzgerald Auto Mall in North Bethesda when he was shot at 7:41 am. At 8:10 am, Premkumar Walekar was killed in Aspen Hill while pumping gas at a Mobil station. Twenty minutes after that, Sarah Ramos, 34, was killed at the Leisure World plaza in Silver Spring while reading on a bench. At 9:58 am, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring was murdered while vacuuming her minivan at a Kensington Shell station.

Vickie Snider, victim Sonny Buchanan's sister: "I'd gone to my exercise class and had my niece's daughter with me. We were told there was a Code Red and to be very careful. There had been a shooting at Aspen Hill. We were told to walk to our cars together and go home. When I got home, I turned on the TV and saw there were a lot of shootings.

"I should have connected it. I saw the lawn mower and the telephone pole. We were going to meet when Sonny was done, so I kept calling to tell him to be careful.

"I was trying to get my niece's baby to sleep when the police came. Then I had to call my parents. My oldest son was a freshman in college, and he found out via the news. No offense to you, but some in the media are so insensitive. They tried to interview him. He and Sonny were very close."

Dr. Caroline Namrow, physician, who was getting gas when Premkumar Walekar, 54, was killed: "I had one kid with me; he was almost two. I was in the car, and there was another parked parallel to me, facing a different direction. He was filling his car from underneath his license plate, which I had never seen. He looked at me. I smiled. I had opened my passenger-side window to get some air. I looked down to get a credit card, and there was a big bang. I looked up, and the man was coming to the passenger-side window and he collapsed. I jumped out and saw blood down the side of my minivan. I called 911 but didn't understand why no one was coming out to help. Obviously, they were listening to the radio or TV.

"The man had agonal breathing—the last breath before someone dies. I checked for a pulse but didn't feel one. I began mouth-to-mouth. Then a policeman came. I said, 'I'm a doctor—I'll do the mouth, you do the chest.' The victim vomited, but he wasn't alive.

"Two ambulances came, but nobody was getting out. I ran to one and yelled, 'Get out!' Apparently, they'd been told not to until they received an all-clear—they thought it was an act of terrorism. Everything happened fast, but it felt like a really long time. Finally, they took him to the hospital."

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  • Shirley Titus Klepac

    I lived this..It was terrifying..We were afraid to walk out our doors..

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Posted at 01:50 PM/ET, 09/26/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles