Me and the D.C. Sniper
I don't remember too much about how that day started. But I can't seem to forget the hours that followed. I was on my way back from Dunkin Donuts when I learned my 2 year old daughter and I were in the path of a shooting spree.
We had stood on the sidewalk beside the long, low brick elementary school watching with the other parents in a crowd of strollers and milling younger siblings while Finn and his classmates lined up behind his hawk-nosed and eyed kindergarten teacher, Ms. Blumenthal. Then, back in our trusty silver van, Lucy and I drove 4 year old Sam to his very first day that year at Cedar Lane Cooperative Nursery School. Sam's school was in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church which was tucked into a leafy glen across the road from Rock Creek Park, itself a sylvan sanctuary and unlikely partner to the clamorous Beltway it ran beside. Both were steps from our front yard. Waking up at 2 in the morning to nurse Lucy, I would pretend the low roar I heard was the sound of a rushing river. The reality was just too unnerving and the power of my imagination is strong. There was no time of day or night that the thundering hiss would stop.
Sam had attended the same free-spirited nursery school the previous year and went off happily. Henry and I volunteered once a week but that day was not our day and I was immediately lightened by the feeling of going from three children to one for a few hours. I felt so good about where both my boys were. The elementary school was excellent. And we'd chosen this nursery school based on its child-centered, play-based not too academic approach. Somewhat of a nervous nellie about my kids' safety in general, I felt relaxed about both these places. This did not come easily to me. It was a good day.
I looked at Lucy and gauged her sleepiness. Could I make it to the Dunkin' Donuts drive-through and all the way home again without her falling asleep? As any stay-at-home parent knows, moments like these cannot be squandered. If a child falls asleep in a moving vehicle she may not be transferred to a crib and stay asleep. Could I take the chance? Lucy was bright-eyed. So we headed for a cup of coffee and the familiar friendly face at the drive-through window. I had Lucy nestled in her carseat right behind me while I chatted cheerily and loudly the whole way, keeping her talking and wide awake.
From his usual perch in the metal frame of the drive-through window, the young guy I always talked to had pointed urgently at the gas station catty corner from Dunkin' Donuts and said there had been a shooting. At least I thought that was what he might have said. His usually mellifluous Middle Eastern accent was so rapid that morning I couldn't grab all he was saying. I was troubled and made noises to that effect but I wasn't clear what had happened. And truthfully, I was more focused on getting Lucy home quickly before she fell asleep in the car and ruined my chances of a much-needed break from kids. I thanked him, told him I'd see him tomorrow and said goodbye. He looked at me like I was crazy. I sipped my medium decaf, light and sweet, while the van hummed out onto Connecticut Avenue and we headed for home.
And then, my cell phone rang. It was Henry.
"Where are you?" He sounded weird.
"I'm out. Near...Home Depot."
"Get off Connecticut Ave.! Now!!! Get away from there!"
My husband is not the dramatic sort. He's doesn't over-react. Well, to a few things he does. To certain lost major league baseball games. To empty cereal boxes left in the cupboard. To the use of your when you're is what's needed. But not about real life stuff. He was yelling. My heart thumped.
He said four people had just been shot up and down Connecticut Avenue in the last few hours. It was all over the news. He said I needed to get Lucy and me off that road. Now. What? At first I couldn't take in what he was saying. Then he started to name places. The Michael's craft store in Aspen Hill. Well, that's where I am... A gas station near Michael's. Wait a minute....The guy at the drive-through said something about a shooting at the gas station! And Leisure World... Okay, that's the other direction. Not towards Bethesda. It's amazing how quickly your mind starts trying to normalize even the strangest situations. Ok. There may be danger nearby but it's moving away from me and the people I love. Henry kept talking and telling me the crazy things they were saying on the news. There wasn't much else to say but we didn't want to hang up.
I stayed on Connecticut Avenue because it was the fastest way to get home. It's a huge six lane wide road that passes for an average thoroughfare in the exurbs of D.C. I didn't really know any other way. I didn't want to get lost in the maze of neighborhoods between Dunkin' Donuts and home. Plus I couldn't truly take in the possibility that Lucy and I could be in any danger. Then it hit me: The nursery school. Looking at the car clock, I suddenly saw eighteen small bodies tumbling out the door onto the woodchip-laden playground. Call the school, Henry! You have to call the school! Cedar Lane is 2 turns off Connecticut Avenue. We hang up. Minutes go by. I'm driving. Listening to the radio. Trying to find out what's going on. I don't know what I'm trying to find out. I keep looking back at Lucy. She's falling asleep. I let her. Henry calls me back. There's no answer at the pre-school. They must be outside. I'll keep trying. I tell him I love him and I hang up and drive. Henry calls me back again.
There's been another shooting.
Where?! Where?! I'm getting mildly hysterical now.
The gas station in front of Safeway. The Shell.
I'm going to the school. Keep calling.
By the time I passed the Shell station moments later, it had actually been a full half hour since Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, a mother of a 2 year old little girl, was shot to death while vacuuming out her mini-van. In front of the Safeway where I'd go to buy the kids' Cheerios and milk. Where Henry got gas. Where I vacuumed out our van. Cars drove by the scene seemingly unaware. It was about a mile from Sam's preschool.
My heart was racing as I pulled into the shaded Unitarian Universalist church parking lot. I could see kids scrambling over the wooden climbing structure there and their beatific teacher, Miss Marion, watching over them with a gaggle of co-oping parents. What had been happening around the corner hadn't intruded yet. I approached them, trying to contain my panic but still the first words out of my mouth were, "We have to get inside!" The parents acted as though I could have been overreacting. But they hadn't heard the radio. They hadn't seen the police tape at the gas station. The guy at the drive-through window. I left Sam there with his classmates in the safety of the basement. He didn't know anything was wrong. I didn't want to panic him. I didn't want to be the crazy mother. But by the time I got home and watched half an hour of panic-inducing media coverage, I was frantic - wanting nothing but all 3 of my boys in our house with the doors bolted against this threat.
You have to understand, we had already lived through September 11th in D.C. Many of us drove past the wounded Pentagon on the Beltway every day. We were told to have a safe room in our houses to prepare for a chemical attack. Local authorities were so unrelenting that even the most lackadaisical among us had at least a few days supply of water in the house. The stores couldn't keep up with the demand for supplies with which to seal ourselves into a room in our homes for 24 hours. Many hardware stores updated their signs hourly: We have plastic sheeting NOW! More Duct Tape JUST IN! We had lived through the West Nile Virus epidemic when birds were dropping dead out of the sky into our backyards and folks from the County would appear, bag them and tell us not to come out of our houses after 6 o'clock at night anymore. We had opened our mail with gloves on standing in the open air on our porches away from our kids holding our breath after anthrax had penetrated our mail system. It had been a rough couple of years on the D.C. area psyche.
We became glued to our television sets. I loved and hated the sight of Charles Moose, our Chief of Police for Montgomery County. He seemed so calm. Competent. I can't remember the last time I wanted to believe in someone so much. But everytime he appeared my stomach dropped. Had there been another shooting? Where was it this time? Please let the person be alive. Or was this the time Chief Moose was going to announce they'd caught him? We dreaded the sight of him, then hung on his every word.
At first none of us had gotten it right. The first shot had been fired the night before my coffee run. At the Michael's across from my Dunkin' Donuts on Connecticut Avenue in Rockville. It hadn't hit anybody. Just gone straight through the huge floor to ceiling windows that front every Michael's craft store just like so many other big box stores. And preventing any of us from entering another one without fear for 3 solid weeks. An hour later, a man had been shot and killed in the parking lot of Shopper's World in Glenmont, a nearby town. When Henry had called me on Connecticut Avenue the next morning, a man mowing the lawn of a car dealership on that road had already been shot and killed at 7:41 am. About a half hour after that, the poor man filling his tank at the gas station across from Dunkin' Donuts had been shot and killed. Another half hour later, a young woman sitting on a bench reading a book outside a shopping center further up Connecticut Avenue was shot and killed. At almost 10 am, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was killed vacuuming out her mini-van. That night a man walking on a street in downtown D.C. was shot and killed.
The next day, we all thought we'd woken up ready to face a new day. But the nightmare had another plan for us. It continued. A woman was shot and wounded in a Michael's parking lot about 40 minutes outside D.C. near Fredericksburg, Virginia. What the hell was going on? It was the familiarity of the places where the shootings were happening that made them so utterly paralyzing. Michael's? This innocuous place of silk flowers, glue guns, pompoms and scrapbooking supplies. It is the mecca for every person who wants to fluff up the rough edges of life. Showcase the happiest moments in their family's history. And suddenly it wasn't safe? The gas station? The grocery store? These were everyday places. Some of them necessary for the every day living of life. Two days later, in what was probably the most awful of all the shootings for parents in the area, a Montgomery County Middle School student was shot as he was entering school. He survived. Thank god. But the message that shooting sent to area parents was paralyzing. Not even our children were safe. Hawk-eyed Ms. Blumenthal didn't line her students up outside anymore. No one did. No one was that sharp-sighted. Nobody could keep every child safe. There was no outside for anybody anymore.
We began to feel that we were living in a war zone. The person doing the shooting was a sniper. Shooting once. From a distance. There was no rhyme or reason to it. After a shooting, the surrounding area would be shut down for hours of gridlock as police, FBI searched every car. I, like so many other moms, was shut in the house with three children five years old and under with the shades drawn all day long. We drove far out into the country to do our grocery shopping on the weekend. Breathing better the farther north or west we drove. I drove up to Connecticut with the kids to be with my mom to escape the constant anxiety. I hated leaving Henry behind but I wanted to get the kids as far away from danger as possible. I would do anything to protect them. I wanted to drive and drive and not stop until there was a whole country between us and this nightmare. Henry would promise he would stay indoors and I would drive north with a knot in my diaphragm.
We were told to serpentine to and from our cars when entering and exiting buildings by Chief Moose. Especially stores like the grocery store. He also told us to watch for tiny red lights being shone on us. That could mean someone was setting a sight on us. All outdoor events were cancelled. Every soccer game. Football game. Track meet. Walk-a-thon. Tag Sale. Field trip. You name it. It was cancelled. Every school in Montgomery County was in lock-down. The windows were covered with paper or the shades were closed. At Sam's pre-school, Miss Marion had the kids color huge swaths of white newsprint paper with fanciful drawings. They colored their hearts out then used the results to block out a murderer's view in. Also their view out. There was no recess. No walking to school. There were police officers at every school. Stores were covered up too. You'd be surprised how many stores have floor to ceiling windows. You don't notice until they're all covered with paper or sheets. Everything took on the flat quality of a bad horror movie. Where was it safe? Was there anyplace? We started to plan an indoor Halloween.
Two days after the child was shot, a man was shot and killed at a gas station in Manassas, Virginia. A half hour from D.C. Two days later, another man was shot and killed while pumping gas near Fredericksburg. Gas stations hung tarps up to shield their customers from view. People would crouch down in the protective shadow between the gas pump and their car. Grown men in suits. Teenage girls. Grandmothers. We lived, like every other house, with our shades drawn all day long. No outdoor play despite the beautiful weather. Making a game with the kids out of running to the car from the house. Ridiculous, really. They wouldn't be on our street, right? But where were they? Anxiety-prone to begin with, this was not good for me. Henry would pump gas for me. Crouching down if I asked. He didn't want to give in to the fear. What were the chances? But I couldn't get the thought of Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera out of my head. Vacuuming her car out where I'd gone so many times to vacuum out ours. If it could happen to her, why not us? That's what everyone thought.
I remember one time coming home from being with my mother. It was a whole other season up there in New England. The trees had completely turned color there already even though it still felt like summer in Maryland. We'd gone to a cider mill in Connecticut and held the kids as they'd ridden an elderly pony who lived with the kindly couple who ran the mill. I'd started to relax just the slightest bit. There hadn't been any shootings in a few days and we thought maybe it was safe to come home. I needed to get the kids back in school. And I hated being apart from Henry. I purposely didn't listen to news on the radio driving home. It was starting to feel like a toxic agent in our lives. We listened to Kidz Bop instead and sang along loudly. And then, as soon as we passed into Montgomery County, I saw them. Lying in wait. In the darkness near the end of every exit on-ramp. Police cars. State troopers. And I knew right away. There'd been another one. And I had no choice. I had to continue on home even though home wasn't a safe place anymore.
I began to feel capable of murder. For the first time in my life. We all say it, right? We throw those words around like they mean nothing. I'm going to kill you! I could kill whoever invented this game... But I started to really mean it. I began to fantasize about it. Especially when I was driving around in my car. When I had to drive the kids somewhere or go out to pick something up. I felt so vulnerable. My family was threatened. And it enraged me. I felt that if I somehow found the person who was causing this terror, who had done this evil...I would try to stop them. Physically. That's how desperate I began to feel. How powerless. I've been a pacifist since I was a very young teen but I began to feel capable of real violence. If I spotted them - whoever they were - crouching in the woods with their gun I would steer the van off the road and run them over. Looking them right in the eye. I would run them over and hope they died. This was the only scenario I could conjure up. I've always felt empowered (maybe a little too?) behind the wheel of the car. People up north would talk about how unnerved they felt by the whole scenario. How freaked out they felt at the gas station. I felt like slapping them.
Three days after the Fredericksburg shooting, a woman was shot and killed in a Home Depot parking lot near Falls Church, Virginia. Everytime a few days would go by with no more violence, we'd think it might be over. But then Chief Moose would appear again and say the words we didn't want to hear. Five days later, a man was shot and survived outside a Ponderosa in Ashland, Virginia, about 90 miles south of D.C. This was the farthest away from us the shootings had been. Maybe, this insane person/people were leaving. Maybe it could be ending.
But then three days later, they were right back they started. Near us. A bus driver, on the job one morning. was shot to death just standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland right outside the Home Depot. Next door to the Dunkin' Donuts and the gas station and the Michael's. It had been three weeks and they were right back where Ruby and I had been the morning Henry had called to warn me to get out of their way. Three weeks later and not only was it not over, they were back where it had all begun.
I was ready to pack up our entire house, have Henry quit his job and go stay at my parents' Cape Cod house and make a new life for ourselves.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the twilight zone that had become our lives ended. Two nights after the bus driver was killed, a man pulled into a small rest area by the side of highway 70 out in Myersville, Maryland and noticed the car that, by that time, police had notified the public to be looking for. He blocked the exit of the rest area with his truck and called the police. John Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo, the men responsible for these weeks of murder and terror, were found sleeping in their car. Along with the illegally-bought weapon that was later ballistically linked to 11 of the 14 shootings. It was finally over.
I've been haunted by those weeks when Muhammed and his 17 year old accomplice, Lee Boy Malvo, killed 10 human beings, wounded 3 and held thousands of people, including me, my husband, and our 5, 4 and 2 year old children, hostage. We did eventually move back up to New England that following summer. There were a lot of reasons but the so-called D.C. sniper was definitely part of the straw that broke this camel's back. I've read everything I can find about those two men since. I guess it's been part of my way of processing what happened to us those weeks in October seven years ago now. Trying to understand what would motivate someone to commit such heinous acts of violence and to want to terrorize an entire community.
Muhammed's ex-wife says he was never the same after he came back from the Gulf War. I do believe violence begets violence. In the excellent documentary, The D.C. Sniper's Wife, Mildred Muhammed also contends that Mohammed meant for these attacks to end with her death. There was a history of mental illness, domestic violence and threats that Mildred Muhammed felt she could not get the authorities to take seriously. This is an old and familiar story that desperately needs a new ending. Muhammed frequented his ex-wife's neighborhood during the attacks and some of them did take place nearby.
There was also evidence presented at trial that both John Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo held belief in an Islamic Jihad against America and saw their attack as part of this war. Details about a plan by Muhammed to take money extorted from the government in exchange for stopping the sniper attacks and open a terrorist training camp for homeless youth in Canada came from Malvo. I read all these things and more but could glean no real meaning from them. In the end, they've both said very little. And truthfully, there is no reall meaning to be found in vile acts like these. There was no nice and neat Barbara Walters interview for this story. These were sick, angry and deluded men. One, Malvo, was barely a man at the time. There really was no explanation for this madness. But there needs to be an explanation for ours.
You see, John Muhammed was executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia this past Wednesday night at 9 pm by lethal injection. Lee Malvo will spend the rest of his life in prison unless the Supreme Court reverses its decision saying a minor who commits a crime can no longer be put to death as an adult. In both cases, we are safe from harm from these men but in Muhammed's case, we have killed a human being as punishment for his incomprehensible crimes. Why?
Did we do it as a deterrent? As a warning to other delusional, homicidal maniacs? Actually states without the death penalty have no higher rates of murder than states with it. Same with developed nations throughout the world. Did we do it because it was more cost-effective than keeping him alive in prison for the rest of his life? Actually, the average cost of imprisoning a person in the U.S. for life is far less than the cost of the appeals associated with executing one. As revenge? Is revenge what justice looks like?
Justice is not about revenge in our society. At least it shouldn't be. If we want a society where human life is valued or even treasured then we have to stop throwing away even the most damaged and disgusting parts. I felt like I could have killed those men to protect my family. I really did. And my experience was mere crumbs of suffering compared to what the families of John Muhammed's victims suffered. I can only begin to imagine it. I don't want to. But that's why victims cannot be jurors. Their pain is too great. We have to decide, as a society, when we are one step removed from being victimized, that we do not kill as punishment. This does not lessen the horror of the crimes committed. It does not lessen the seriousness with which we see the crimes. But it does increase the value that we place on all of our lives and all human life to come. It brings us one step closer to a world that doesn't produce men who become killers like John Muhammed. It separates us from the craven and the blood-thirsty.
I kept hoping there'd be some kind of miracle and Muhammed's execution wouldn't happen. Especially because, in my own fear, I had once wished him dead. I was not my best self in those weeks when I was hiding in my house with the shades drawn, crouching beside the gas pump, serpentining into the grocery store, leaving my husband behind to get the kids out of state. I was scared and fear had diminished me. We can't make our best decisions out of fear. Nor anger. It's not that I care about that shell of a human being. Or because I think he can be rehabilitated. But when we allow the State to throw out a human being....in our names...we're endorsing the kind of base, meaningless world that sick men like Muhammed and Malvo crave. We're working against our best selves. That's the story I really dread telling my children. Not just how one day when they were small their childhood was interrupted for a few weeks because we had to hide from a killer. But that one day that killer was punished by being killed himself. By us. Because that's a crime too.