Josh White is The Washington Post’s education editor. He covered the D.C. sniper shootings in 2002 and was a local investigative reporter from 2008 to 2012.
He shuffled into the room and stopped, plexiglass and cinderblocks framing his slight figure. He looked much as I remembered him from nearly a decade earlier: big eyes in a boyish face, a thin build, long fingers, waist chains. But his eyes, once cold and flat, had mellowed into something resembling thoughtfulness.
For a moment, my reflection in the glass superimposed on his orange jumpsuit, and I paused, looking at him and at me. Lee Boyd Malvo smiled. The D.C. sniper, in the visitation room of one of the nation’s most restrictive prisons, smiled at me.
I have covered war, feeling the zip of bullets overhead, the giant-footstep boom of a mortar landing, the heat of an explosion. I’ve been inside drug dens and on police stakeouts. I have watched two men die in Virginia’s electric chair, seeing the death grip on oak, the smoke rising.
Yet nothing compares to personal encounters with people who have done something so horrible, so evil, that it defies understanding. People who can look you in the eye and describe what it was like to use a high-powered rifle to shoot a stranger in the head, how desperation can lead to animalistic rape, how pedophilic obsession can infect, fester, destroy.
Malvo, a serial killer. Aaron Thomas, a serial rapist. Kevin Ricks, a serial child molester.
Over the past three years, I’ve studied and reported their crimes, reached out to them and engaged them in lengthy conversations. Those depths are dark.
It’s easy to assume that these men are fairly similar: sinister, remorseless, the personification of evil. After all, how else could they have done such things?
Yet, after speaking with them, I know that behind the unforgivable crimes of murder, rape and molestation are three very different men, with distinct motives and rationalizations for doing the unthinkable. They did have one thing in common: They desperately wanted to talk about how their lives had unraveled. They wanted to explain, face to face, how and why they became who they are.
I tried several times to speak to John Allen Muhammad, who orchestrated the 2002 sniper shootings in Maryland, Virginia and the District, before he was put to death in 2009. But he never wrote me back and never granted anyone a real interview.
Malvo, however, responded quickly to my letter last August as I was preparing to write about the 10th anniversary of the killings. Before submitting to a lengthy telephone interview, he wrote to me and asked to meet in person.
After a flight to Tennessee and a drive north into the Virginia mountains, I reached Red Onion State Prison, at the end of a road lined with strip-mining operations and nestled into a picturesque valley. It houses some of Virginia’s worst criminals, but the setting is almost serene.
I was not allowed to bring anything into the visitation room other than the clothes I was wearing. No pens, no pencils, no paper. Upon meeting Malvo, I explained this to him, and he agreed to allow me to quote him from memory, something I am never comfortable doing. I also interviewed him in four separate, recorded telephone calls the following day.
What surprised me most about Malvo was his eloquence. He was polite, refined, respectful. Ten years after he and Muhammad embarked on a 23-day killing spree that took at least 10 lives, a boy had grown into a man; rage and bloodlust had morphed into contrition and, strangely, optimism. He was expressive, even wise.
“I see opportunity everywhere,” Malvo said. All he sees for 23 hours a day — and will see every day for the rest of his life — are the walls of a tiny cell. He interacts with almost no one. Opportunity?
He beamed, his hands doing a lot of the talking. He has studied psychology, history, philosophy and real estate, at one point working with a pen pal to help the man set up real estate deals in the Midwest. He is into yoga and practices Eastern meditation. He writes poetry, creates art.Malvo makes the most of a situation that he created.
Maybe more than 85,000 hours — and counting — to think about it helps. He darkened as he talked about the killings. There was no joy there, no boasting. It was horrible in the telling.
He and Muhammad scouted shooting locations, planned escapes, hid the gun near some of the outdoor sites so that, if questioned after a shooting, they would not have it with them. Malvo dissected for me what went well and what didn’t; his recollections were excruciatingly detailed.
One memory he said bothers him most: the death of Linda Franklin at the Home Depot in Seven Corners. Malvo told me he paced out the distance across Route 50 many times, walking across the highway to where he and Muhammad would take the shot. After the older man pulled the trigger, Malvo said, he focused on the look in the eyes of Linda Franklin’s husband.
“They are penetrating,” Malvo said. “It is the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life. His eyes. . . . Words do not possess the depth in which to fully convey that emotion and what I felt when I saw it.”
In describing another shooting, Malvo seemed shaken by the notion of himself, then 17, shooting another teenager. “Think about it, a kid shooting a kid,” he said, recalling the long-distance shot he took with a Bushmaster rifle at Tasker Middle School in Bowie. That bullet hit Iran Brown, then 13, but he miraculously survived. Malvo slapped his forehead with his right hand, held it there, shaking his head.
Reflecting on his state of mind at the time, he said, “If there was a soul there, it was behind layers and layers and layers of darkness.”
He told the tale I’d heard before, crafted for his legal defense: He was a wayward boy in Antigua who was taken in by Muhammad, brainwashed and transformed, like a child soldier, into a killing machine. “He told me to do something, and I did it,” Malvo said. “After a certain point, he didn’t have to say anything. He would just look at me, and I understood.”
I could tell that talking about the killings brought Malvo to a different place. His demeanor shifted. His faint Caribbean accent, largely hidden, started to creep in, as did his regrets. He recalled that as a child, he believed he could do anything. He once made a list of things he wanted to accomplish by the time he was 25, he told me. Yet, on his 25th birthday, he was in a room with a detective, answering questions about someone he had robbed and tried to kill.
Deep down, he admitted, there must have been something very wrong with him, something that allowed the most terrible of evils to emerge. Something susceptible, easily corrupted. “I became a changeling,” he said. “Whoever the authority is, I change to him.”
Once Muhammad had secured his trust, Malvo said, “I was a lost cause.”
He repeatedly noted that Muhammad gave him his attention and time, a gift the boy treasured. I pointed to what looked like a new Timex watch on Malvo’s left wrist. Malvo, convicted of capital murder in Virginia, is serving multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole. Imagine that, I said, a guy for whom time means nothing wanting to keep track of time.
As with Malvo, my contact with Kevin Ricks began with a letter. Ricks, a high school English teacher, had been arrested in February 2010 on a charge of taking “indecent liberties” with a minor in Manassas. Based on our initial reporting, I soon suspected that this case was just one of many.
Ricks had moved often during the past 30 years, taking jobs at numerous schools in several states. Everywhere I called, people told me that he had suddenly left town without much explanation. Usually, the departures coincided with rumors of inappropriate relationships or apparent stalking of students.
Ricks wrote back almost immediately, and we started talking by phone, sometimes for hours a day. Then 50 years old, Ricks was adamant that he had done nothing wrong. Yet every person he suggested I speak to said otherwise.
They described a predator, someone who developed relationships with boys, cultivated their friends and families, then got them drunk and molested them in their sleep.
After interviewing several of Ricks’s victims, I spoke with him, via videoconference, at the Prince William County jail, where he was serving a one-year sentence on the indecent liberties charge. He would later plead guilty to federal charges and be sentenced to 25 years in prison.
He was eager to talk. I had just returned from Denmark, where I interviewed a man who had lived with Ricks in Danville, Va., for six months in 1999 as a foreign-exchange student. I told him I had met the former student on the banks of a canal in Copenhagen.
Ricks leaned forward in his chair, his eyes wide. “What did he look like?”
I related a story the man had told me, about finding naked photographs of himself in Ricks’s bedside table drawer and then confronting Ricks.
“And then . . .” I started, but Ricks finished the sentence: “. . . we went out back and burned them in the barbecue.”
Ricks eventually admitted pretty much anything I could confirm through my reporting. Abuse of boys in Japan. Abuse of boys in North Carolina. Abuse of boys in Virginia and Maryland and Georgia.
I sat down with Ricks in person on Dec. 4, 2010, locked in a jail cell with him for six hours. He seemed intelligent, worldly, kind. He is a storyteller, endearing and witty — the kind of teacher you want involved in your kid’s education.
When confronted with his crimes, he admitted “misbehavior” with half a dozen boys but refused to believe he had done anything to hurt anyone. He insisted that his midnight photography was artistic, a way for him to solidify relationships with teenagers without causing any lasting damage — because they were all passed out. He viewed what he did as “the least intrusive thing to do.”
Ricks said his biggest failure was allowing his quest for love and intimacy to lead his “emotions to overrule logic.” He maintained that his abuse of teenage boys, although morally and legally wrong, was spiritually justified because he loved the boys and did not mean to hurt them.
“I don’t think it can be attributed to a criminal mind,” Ricks said. “My behaviors in this case and in several cases are illegal, and I don’t disagree with the law. But my set of beliefs and my perception are misguided at worst. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I’m certainly on it.”
The conversation was frustrating, in large part because Ricks wavered between understanding and denial. “I don’t believe that I’m a danger or threat to anyone,” he said at one point. But later he contradicted himself: “I have no control with minors. I should not be around minors.”
He admitted an “infatuation” with young boys. He was so immersed in teenage culture — the music, the movies, the technology — that he almost considered himself a teenager. He became the teacher they all wanted, someone who was easygoing, had few rules and tried to relate to students. He played the part of mentor, leader, friend.
Yet at home, Ricks collected NAMBLA magazines and created a posterboard with pornographic cutouts. There were also trophies — pubic hair, tissues, sex toys — linked to his victims and shrines where he kept them.
I knew he had a teenage relative, so I asked him what he would think if that relative came to him and described a relationship with a 50-year-old English teacher, if he learned that the teen and the teacher had been drinking together and if he saw incriminating photographs of what the teacher had done to the unconscious relative.
Ricks sat back in his chair and leaned his head against the wall. He paused, adjusted his orange jumpsuit, set down his glasses and wiped his eyes. Tears.
“It’s reprehensible,” he said. “Reprehensible.”
A moment of silence, and in that moment I thought I’d found remorse.
Ricks picked up his glasses and straightened up. “But I loved them,” he said.
He spent three decades justifying his actions, hiding his offenses, running from authority, running from everyone he knew, including himself. Now he’ll spend decades trying to build a life in prison, a place where, he told a court recently, he is involved in mentoring other inmates and wants to get into the prison ministry.
He has written apology letters to some of his victims. They are similar in tone, almost always justifying himself, seeking redemption.
“I did something terribly wrong, and even repeated it, and destroyed even the chance that our brief, needy time could end well,” Ricks wrote in a 1993 letter to a boy he had molested in the early 1980s. “I’d like to tell you how sorry I am that I hurt you. I hope you’ve grown to understand that I was not a random child molester, and that I really did love you.”
“I believe in forgiveness,” Ricks told me.
When Aaron Thomas was arrested in New Haven, Conn., in March 2011, police were certain that he was the infamous East Coast Rapist, responsible for at least a dozen attacks on women in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and Rhode Island dating back to the 1990s. His DNA matched evidence recovered at numerous crime scenes, and he immediately confessed to the attacks, according to police. My Washington Post colleague Maria Glod and I had catalogued the crimes in an investigation published about a year earlier as police searched for the unknown rapist.
After interviewing several of his victims, I wrote Thomas letters, in Connecticut and later in Virginia, where he was moved to face trial for attacking three teenage girls on Halloween in 2009 in Prince William County.
I connected with Thomas by telephone in April 2012. He began the conversations with a plea for help, saying he was living with a demon inside him, a second personality he called “Erwin.” He wanted to learn how to control Erwin, how to stop the badness.
Erwin, he said, was the rapist. Aaron, he said, was a good person, a family man, someone who helped the elderly and had love for everyone.
“Erwin would show up, and things would happen in the middle of the night,” Thomas said. “He only comes around when I’m lonely.”
He spoke in hushed tones, sometimes so low that it was hard to hear him over the jailhouse noise. He sounded afflicted, damaged, a mess. Authorities had reported that Thomas, then 40, was suicidal and had tried to kill himself; Thomas told me that it was Erwin.
At one point, he told me he had cut his genitals in an attempt to get rid of the evil, a wound that jail officials had not discovered. With his permission, I reported the injury to jail authorities, and they responded and treated him.
We traced his life in sometimes daily conversations, from his childhood in Prince George’s County as the son of a D.C. police officer and a career Geico employee to his years after high school as a vagrant who sometimes lived in abandoned cars, buses and a vacant pet store; his rowdy youth, abuse at the hands of his father, hints of severe behavioral problems and a possible mental disorder.
But it was his experiences on the street — getting shot in D.C., living homeless in Prince George’s — that he said led to Erwin’s existence. He stopped caring, got sexual urges and struck out in the night after women.
I was skeptical of the Erwin story from the beginning. After speaking to experts, it seemed unusual that someone with multiple personalities would experience interaction between them. Yet Erwin was an open book to Thomas. He saw, experienced and regretted everything that he claimed Erwin had done.
But everything he told me about his personal history checked out. He was, in fact, shot in D.C., verified by a column that ran in The Washington Post shortly afterward. The abandoned pet store — which later burned down, according to its owner — was indeed where Thomas said it was at the time he squatted there. Family members confirmed dates, places he lived, stories he told.
But as I pressed, the Erwin story fell apart. In early June, after a court hearing in which a judge ordered him to cooperate with mental health experts, Thomas called me, clarity in his voice, and admitted that he had made Erwin up. He was ready to talk, for real.
The real Thomas was, in many ways, scarier than the devil personality he had created. He had little explanation for what had happened and had foggy memories, at best, of the attacks. He said that he basically saw women as prey, not as people, and that there are many predators out there just like him.
“They were objects,” Thomas said. “Whoever came down the street, an object. . . . It’s awful. It’s scary. . . . I don’t know why I couldn’t just stop.”
I asked him if he understood how dangerous he had been, if he understood that his victims were daughters, sisters, mothers, real people — if he would want revenge against a person who did these things to someone he knew.
He said he understood, but he minimized what he had done.
“I never hurt anyone,” he said, noting that he never beat, shot or stabbed any of his victims. The weapons he used to subdue were often surprise and threat. He didn’t seem to see rape as violence. Several of his victims, unsurprisingly, told me it was an extremely violent experience.
In late summer, Thomas called me to sign off, saying he shouldn’t continue the conversations because of his court cases.
“I appreciate you listening to me,” I recall him saying. “You’ve helped me understand myself. But I still need help understanding why this happened.”
Thomas pleaded guilty to multiple rape and abduction charges in Prince William and Loudoun counties and is scheduled to be sentenced in March. He faces the possibility of several life sentences.
People often ask me how I can sit in a room with a killer or a rapist or a molester, and whether I’m giving them a chance to explain away their crimes.
Of course I know going in that some of what they say could be self-serving, maybe outright lies. But I challenge them, I verify what they say to the extent possible, and I give them a voice — something I believe to be a core mission of journalism. I feel it’s important to allow readers a glimpse of that world, and everything we learn from criminals may help prevent future crimes.
Ricks was far more likable than most people might imagine. I came to understand that his personality, his apparent trustworthiness, was his most effective weapon.
Thomas, when speaking as himself, said he barely understood why the rapes happened — he said he had urges he could not control — but even more shocking to me was his ability to see those acts as nonviolent.
Malvo, unlike Thomas and Ricks, owns his crimes. They are a part of him — though one that he is trying to forget and that he hopes everyone else will, too. “I did monstrous things,” he said.
Toward the end of my interview with Malvo, I had to know the answer to a question that had lingered in my mind for a decade.
On Oct. 19, 2002, in the midst of the sniper saga, I received a call from a source who urged me to get in my car and drive south. For what? Just go.
I was soon headed to Ashland, Va., where the latest sniper victim had been shot outside a Ponderosa steakhouse just off I-95. As I pulled into a nearby hotel parking lot, I had to slam on the brakes when a young man darted in front of my car. He moved past, and I parked. As I got out, I asked him where the shooting had taken place. He pointed at the Ponderosa across the road. He was wearing a brightly colored sweater.
When Malvo and Muhammad were arrested days later and I saw the first mug shots, I couldn’t breathe. The photo of Malvo revealed the person I had seen in the Ashland parking lot.
Without giving him any details, I asked Malvo if he remembered anything about that parking lot in Ashland. He said he did, that he almost got hit by a car. He said he remembered it as a small sports car with an unusual green color (my Toyota Celica was “Caribbean green”). I asked him what he was wearing that night, and he said it was a “crazy sweater with all sorts of bright colors.”
When I told him that it was my car, he said: “You almost hit me.”
What if I had?
There he was, one of two men on a killing spree, hours after he shot a stranger, about to go recover the gun from the woods. Knowing everything.
There I was, part of an enormous cadre of people looking for the killers, hoping to learn what was going on. Knowing nothing.
Ten years later, he sat on one side of the plexiglass, dreaming about what he could have become. Hoping to understand his evil.
Ten years later, I sat on the other side of the plexiglass, dreaming about how to explain what he had become. Hoping to understand his evil.
I shook my head and smiled. Malvo smiled back.