By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
When Cheryll Witz heard sniper Lee Boyd Malvo's taped confession that he and John Allen Muhammad killed her father on a Tucson golf course in March 2002, she thought that was as much closure as she would ever get.
But last month, as she and her best friend shopped at a Costco in Tucson, a television network producer called Witz's cellphone and told her that someone else on the line wanted to speak to her. It was Malvo, speaking from Red Onion Correctional Center in Virginia, struggling to fight back tears as he apologized.
"He told me he's been trying to write me but didn't know where to start," she said, recounting the Sept. 20 three-way conversation arranged by a producer at ABC News. "He said: 'I just wanted to apologize to you. I am so sorry for what I've done.' "
Witz said she broke down after hanging up. "I was white as a ghost," she said. "I'm bawling, crying my eyes out."
The thought of Malvo, 22, has haunted her since he and Muhammad were named as suspects in the slaying of her father, Jerry R. Taylor, 60. Authorities believe Taylor was one of a handful of people the snipers shot in the months leading up to the October 2002 shootings that terrorized the Washington area.
Five years ago today, five slayings in a single day stunned residents and made clear that a serial killer, or a team of killers, was working fast and mercilessly. For three weeks, residents feared the exposure that came with pumping gas or mowing the lawn. Before it was over, 22 days later, 10 people were dead in the Washington area.
Both snipers have been convicted. Muhammad is on Virginia's death row, and his young protege, Malvo, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Malvo and Muhammad have long been prime suspects in the Arizona homicide. Although they were never charged in the slaying, the case was closed after Tucson homicide detectives interviewed Malvo in October 2006. Malvo was granted immunity from prosecution in that state.
Witz said she had been in touch with ABC producer Mary Harris for several months and had expressed her desire to speak to Malvo. Witz said she did not believe her request would be granted -- until her phone rang two weeks ago.
"I have Lee on the phone," Witz said Harris told her. "Would you like to talk to him?"
Malvo spoke softly and sounded choked up, Witz said. "He said the Lee that did that is not the same Lee now," she said.
Witz had a laundry list of questions -- details that still keep her awake at night. Malvo answered some, and the two agreed to correspond later.
An ABC News spokeswoman who declined to be identified said that Harris arranged the three-way call because Witz and Malvo had told her independently that they wanted to speak.
Red Onion is one of Virginia's most secure prisons. Inmates at the facility are allowed only two 20-minute collect calls a month, said Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the prison system. Traylor said three-way calls are a violation of departmental policies, and inmates who break that rule can lose the right to make phone calls.
The ABC spokeswoman said that Harris would not have made the three-way call if she had known it violated departmental rules.
Attorney William C. Brennan, who has represented Malvo, said he was surprised that the phone call had taken place. He said that Malvo, at his urging, has declined requests from news organizations pursuing articles about the five-year anniversary of the shootings. The ABC spokeswoman said the producer told another of Malvo's attorneys that the network was seeking to contact Malvo.
In addition to the Virginia sentences, Malvo and Muhammad were each convicted last year on six counts of first-degree murder in Montgomery County.
Law enforcement sources told The Washington Post last year that Malvo told Maryland authorities in the spring of 2006 that he and Muhammad were responsible for more slayings and shootings than had been attributed to them. The list includes Taylor's slaying as well as killings in North Texas and Los Angeles.
Witz said Malvo's phone call left her with more questions than answers and has triggered nightmares in which she and her sister hide in corner of a dark room while Malvo tries to shoot them.
"I'm like really scared," she said. "I really want to forgive the child. I'm a mother. He's my kid's age."