No Longer in Sniper's Shadow
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Whenever one of Mildred Muhammad's three children calls her, she instinctively answers the phone with a worried greeting: "What's wrong?"
The question usually brings an exasperated sigh from the other end of the line, reassuring the ex-wife of sniper John Allen Muhammad that everything is fine.
"No, Mom. Nothing's wrong."
Invariably, the call is routine: Taalibah, 15, has a question about her homework. Salena, 16, is calling to check in after school.
"But that's how it always is," Muhammad said. "My first thought is always: Is everything okay? Then I ask ,'What's up?' Even now."
It has been nearly six years since snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo paralyzed the Washington region in a three-week shooting spree, killing 10 people and wounding three others in October 2002. Muhammad was sentenced to death and is appealing his sentence; Malvo is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
In October 2002, the Muhammad family was whisked into protective custody -- Mildred Muhammad left her administrative job at Southern Maryland Hospital Center, and the children were taken out of school. Their future was uncertain. Today, her son, John, 18, is a student at Louisiana Tech University. Taalibah and Salena both singers, attend a performing arts program at Suitland High School in Prince George's County.
During their marriage, John Muhammad subjected his wife to verbal abuse and accusations of adultery and threatened to kill her and kidnap the children. Mildred Muhammad, now 48, has remarried and is using her experience to help other abuse victims. She has started an organization to prevent domestic violence and travels the country giving speeches and educating women and men to recognize the signs of abuse.
She will be making appearances in Prince George's and Arlington counties over the next few weeks as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October.
"I had to disappear for a while, because I saw I needed to focus on my family, my children and myself. . . . If I were a basket case, my children would be much worse," she said from the spare office in Prince George's where she runs her year-old nonprofit foundation.
"But my children, they didn't want to be 'the sniper's children.' They wanted to be John, Salena and Taalibah. They were afraid to tell people who they were. All they wanted was to live a normal life, but they weren't going to get that unless they had a strong support system."
The relatively normal life the Muhammads now enjoy is one Mildred Muhammad fought hard to create after their lives were torn apart. Her son rebelled against her when she regained custody of him and his sisters after John Muhammad kidnapped them. The boy had been convinced by his father that his mother had abandoned him. Salena stuttered badly, especially when saying her name, because her father had forced the children to change their names and made them believe they would get into trouble if they ever used their birth names.