Sniper shootings, 10 years later, haunt those it touched

September 29, 2012

Dean H. Meyers’s old Timex wristwatch stopped at 8:23 and 54 seconds — the precise moment his body hit the pavement on that night in 2002.

A conscientious man, he always set his watch a little fast. So that’s what time it said when police found him at the gas station near Manassas, slumped beside his Mazda, his skull shattered by the snipers’ rifle bullet.

Meyers’s brother Bob still keeps that watch, with its gold trim and old-fashioned, rectangular face, in a case inside his Pennsylvania home. It’s a symbol of a stopped life and of a fearful time.

Ten years after snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the region by shooting indiscriminately at people doing the mundane things of their daily lives, the memories of white vans, tarot cards and zigzagging though parking lots have somewhat faded. (Related: Lee Boyd Malvo, 10 years after the sniper shootings: “I was a monster”)

But for Bob Meyers and others directly affected by the sniper shootings, getting on with their lives has meant holding on to a piece of that past.

Ten years since the D.C. sniper shootings

Meyers has the Timex. Across the country, there are other mementos: a wooden box wrapped in black hair bands that contains a slain mother’s jewelry; a retired policeman’s thin logbook with a notation that still brings him to tears.

Ten years ago, Dean Meyers, then a 53-year-old civil engineer living in Gaithersburg, became one of the 15 people slain in a cross-country spree that climaxed in the Washington region during three terrifying weeks in October. Seven others were wounded. In the D.C. area, 10 people were killed and three wounded between Oct. 2 and the day the snipers were arrested, Oct. 24.

The victims were selected at random by Muhammad, then 41, an itinerant former soldier, stickup man and con artist, and his sidekick Malvo, a Jamaican teenager, who roved the area in a broken-down car, armed with a stolen rifle.

They chose unsuspecting targets, caught at vulnerable moments — a man mowing a lawn, a cabdriver buying gasoline, a nanny vacuuming a car.

And they spread terror across the region, from Baltimore to Richmond, as they picked off innocents, left ghastly murder scenes and made potential targets of millions of local residents.

People were afraid to buy gas, or go to the grocery store, or cross the street.

The killing seemed unstoppable.

Local and state police, as well as federal law enforcement agencies, appeared helpless.

At one point, then-Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose wept with anger and frustration during a news conference after the snipers shot and wounded a 13-year-old on his way to school.

A hero in the end, Moose feared that the snipers might never be caught and that he would fail the community.

Finally, a description of the killers’ car and its license number were leaked to the public.

And early on the morning of Oct. 24, acting on a tip, a SWAT team seized the suspects as they slept in their car at a highway rest stop near Frederick. The sniper rifle was found stashed behind the back seat.

A year later, Muhammad and Malvo were tried and convicted in the case. Muhammad, charged with Meyers’s murder, was executed by lethal injection in 2009.

Malvo, now 27, is in a maximum-security prison in Virginia, where he is serving a life term for murder.

In the decade since, people touched by the tragedy have pondered its meaning, and some have saved mementos to remind them.

Bob Meyers saved Dean’s watch, along with his old green canoe, and the folded American flag that was on his coffin.

Nelson Rivera, whose wife, Lori, 25, was shot in the back while vacuuming a car at a gas station in Kensington, saved her wooden jewelry box.

It contains her wedding ring, necklaces, her driver’s license, a contact lens case and a snapshot of the couple with their daughter, Jocelin.

Jocelin is 13 now, blond and fair, and looks just like her mother.

And retired Montgomery County police captain Bernard J. “Barney” Forsythe, one of the lead investigators in the case, still has the simple logbook where he jotted notes during the last weeks of the case.

He cries when he reviews the entry he made after the killers were arrested. It was the same sense of emotional relief he felt years earlier when his eldest child was born healthy after serious medical complications.

He says he kept the log because the case is “a part of me, a part of history.”

The watch

In the living area of his home in the Pennsylvania countryside northwest of Philadelphia, Bob Meyers shows the keepsakes of Dean he has retrieved from the display case beside the piano in the next room.

This is the country where Dean grew up, where he went off to the Vietnam War, where he came back with a mangled arm, and where he left years ago for a good job outside Washington.

He never married. He lived in a simple townhouse and went home to visit his family regularly. He would have been 63 now. In the past 10 years, both of his parents have died. A nephew committed suicide.

Dean is buried beneath a black and gold metal marker in a nearby churchyard, beside the graves of his parents, Hap and Rose.

There’s no mention of the sniper on his marker. With his name and dates, it reads: “Sgt US Army Vietnam . . . Purple Heart”

As for the wristwatch, Bob Meyers doesn’t know where Dean got it. But he said it is emblematic of his brother.

“When he hit the ground it stopped,” Bob Meyers said. “But it was a few minutes fast. Because that’s the way he always was. He was always on time.”

“He wasn’t much for show,” Bob Meyers said. “He wouldn’t have a Rolex. He would have a Timex. That was my brother. If he could afford a Rolex, he’d still have a Timex.”

In the distribution among the family of Dean’s possessions after his death, Bob Meyers said he requested the watch.

“I asked for the watch because it was on him when he was shot,” he said. “And I don’t have anything else that was that close to him. . . . It’s the only thing I have that was with him at that moment.”

The jewelry box

Almost 3,000 miles away, in a tan house with brown shutters in Antelope, Calif., Nelson Rivera, 41, keeps a small wooden box wrapped in two black hair bands in a safe in his bedroom.

The box has a glass window in the lid, faded pink lining inside, and slots for rings. Inside are bracelets, a barrette, a necklace, a bobby pin, earrings and a wedding ring — reminders of the gentle woman who had been his wife.

He has even kept some strands of her blond hair.

Lori Lewis Rivera was a native of Mountain Home, Idaho, where she is buried beneath a tombstone etched with a scene of a fairy-tale castle. She had left home to become a nanny and had come to the Washington area to work.

She was among the five people the snipers killed on Oct. 3.

“I tried to keep everything,” Nelson Rivera said. “Because everything, even if it’s a little thing, is of value to me. . . . Eventually, when Jocelin turns 18 we’re going to give it to her.”

Rivera, now remarried and with two other children, ages 6 and 3, moved to California about seven years ago. A native of Honduras, he works in ground maintenance for a local school district.

But he said he remains haunted by his wife’s death. “I still can’t believe that happened to her,” he said. "She was just so young. So young.”

He said he thinks about it every day, in part because Jocelin resembles her mother so much. In “everything,” he said, the way “she moves her hands.”

If time heals wounds, Rivera said, he must be different. “When I talk about this, it’s like it happened yesterday,” he said. “I’m conscious that it’s been already 10 years, but I still remember her.”

He said he especially recalls leaving for work early on the day she was killed.

It was 5:30 a.m. She was still asleep. And he paused to gaze at her, something he said he had never done before.He said it was like he sensed something was going to happen. He never saw her alive again.

Now, he said, October always comes as a sad reminder. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’m ever going to forget this for the rest of my life.”

The logbook

Barney Forsythe sets his old blue logbook on the checkerboard tablecloth in the kitchen of his house in suburban Maryland.

The log is just a simple spiral notebook he got at a law enforcement conference years ago. But on its lined pages, Forsythe began making entries that covered the last 10 days of the case.

Forsythe, 65 and retired, was then a captain and the director of the Montgomery County major-crimes division. As such, under Chief Moose, he ran the investigation for the county, which suffered the highest number of sniper murders.

Forsythe, nearing the end of his career, was a methodical, old-fashioned, trench-coat cop. After scrambling to get his footing in the case, he settled down in a special command center with scores of other state and federal officers and began jotting personal notes in his log.

The entries begin Oct. 14 — 12 days into the case, 10 days before it ended.

The notes are spare, often about what turned out to be the background noise of the investigation: non-credible witnesses, dogs, hypnosis, profilers, negotiators.

But he records the wounding of victim Jeffrey Hopper in Ashland, Va., on Oct. 19, the attempt to establish communications with the killers, and the shooting of bus driver Conrad Johnson in Aspen Hill.

“Tues — 10/22/02 — 0600,” that entry begins. “New shooting . . . Ride-on bus driver . . . Dies Approx 09:26.”

Then, on Oct. 23, there is the simple note, “Malvo et al,” indicating that investigators were at last on the right trail.

Early the next morning, Oct. 24, the log states, Forsythe is notified by one of his men, Sgt. Roger L. Thomson, that the killers’ car has been located. Forsythe and a top aide, Lt. Philip C. Raum, head to the scene.

At “03:30,” the log records, “arrest made,” and referring to the weather notes, “cool night.”

The killers were taken back to Montgomery County for processing, and a few hours later Forsythe was notified that the rifle had been found.

That was the news he had been waiting for. He made the announcement in the command center. “Much applause,” his logbook states.

Now he was done in.

The 10:00 entry reads, “I need a break.” Forsythe had been going hard for three weeks, trying to stay cool in a relentless pressure cooker. At 13:00, he notes, he went to the school where his wife, Marcia, taught, and told her the news. The notation continues, “The feeling of relief is very similar to the feelings following birth of Jason 1st son — Joy, Relief, Tears, Exhaustion.”

In October 1976, Forsythe explained tearfully, his wife’s labor had become complicated, and the baby was in serious trouble.

After anguished waiting, he was told that the child had been born safely and his wife was fine.

The emotional release was overwhelming.

“That’s what it was like” with the capture of the snipers, Forsythe said, his voice trembling. “That’s what it was like.”

The log of those awful days now resides atop a desk in Forsythe’s living room, plain and unadorned. The handwriting looks slightly faded, but the words bring back the sentiments.

On Oct. 26, 2002, two days after the arrests, he was finally able to relax.

He was home. The house was quiet, and he was alone with his dog, Lily.

He noted in the log that he couldn’t concentrate and was too distracted to read:

“Continue to savor silence.”

Paul Duggan contributed to this report.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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