By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
When the shootings were over, the family was nearly penniless, and Mildred Muhammad did not know whom to trust.
But she knew she had to be strong for her children and find a way to let them work through their feelings about what happened to them and the terror their father had wrought.
"I don't have nightmares. I don't have flashbacks. I don't cry when I tell my story. I don't sit back and say, 'What if?' And that's what I teach my children," she said. "I never say anything negative about their dad. I have to be careful how it comes out even when I talk about everything publicly. Because ultimately he is their father, and it was important for me to remember that.
"It took me a while to come to terms that they still loved their dad, even though that man was trying to kill me," she said.
Over the years, she has taken that approach when talking about Malvo, too, because he had become close to her children. Malvo and her son were best friends.
Mildred Muhammad helped manage the family's auto mechanic shop in Tacoma, Wash., for much of their 12-year marriage. But their relationship deteriorated badly. She said John Muhammad threatened to kill her several times. Then, on March 27, 2000, John Muhammad took the children away and for 18 months lived with them in Antigua. At the same time, he persuaded Malvo's mother to allow him to care for the teenager and introduced him to his children. The youths grew up together, with Malvo as the authority figure when John Muhammad was not at home. When authorities found the children in August 2001, Mildred Muhammad gained custody and moved with them to the Washington area.
"I had to understand their pain on both sides of the fence," Muhammad said. "So when the news was going on about Malvo . . . and I started saying, 'Malvo this and Malvo that,' my son said: 'Mom, don't call him that. His name is Lee.' That told me that I was helping my children deal with their father, but I was also helping them deal with their best friend."
Muhammad's work with other victims of domestic violence has helped her own emotional growth. She incorporated her nonprofit, After the Trauma, last year and has had more than three dozen speaking engagements this year. She has also developed a journal for abuse victims and has a contract to write a book about her experience. And her work is a family affair: All the children have tagged along to her talks, preparing brochures and organizing her mother's files.
"I had to find a way of turning all this tragedy into some kind of positive," Muhammad said. "Perhaps my experience with John will trigger some emotion within them to cause them to act and make a decision not to live in a domestic-violence situation."
And she found love. She married counselor Reuben Muhammad, 43, in August 2007.
Every once in a while, the past creeps back. Even though John Muhammad is in a maximum-security prison in southern Virginia, she still carries an order of protection in her purse.
"He's tried to escape three times already," she said. "Not that it's a shield or anything. . . . It's a reminder."
Muhammad said that her children have not had any contact with Malvo or their father, nor have they asked to do so, nor has their father tried to contact them. But there is the possibility that John Muhammad will ask to see them as a last request before being executed. It's a day she is dreading. During a two-hour interview last week, it was the only time she showed any vulnerability.
"If he asks to see them?" She pauses. "I'm not going in there, so I'll have to find someone to go in there with them, someone who I can trust and won't let John use his words to upset them or plant seeds with them.
"Most people can say, 'I can't wait until he's killed. Then this whole thing will be over.' Well, it won't stop for us. Once he's executed, then that connection is gone. I can't imagine what they are going to feel."
But for Muhammad, the future is a challenge she willingly accepts. Having worked so hard, first to regain her children and then to help them heal, she revels in each moment she has with them.
"When my children are yelling and screaming around the house, I just sit back and listen. . . . It's like music to my ears," she said, smiling broadly, eyes gleaming.
For information on After the Trauma, visithttp://www.afterthetrauma.org.