Silent No More
The anonymous gunman moved covertly from city to suburb, picking his victims at random: a man in the parking lot of a Wheaton grocery store, a woman outside a Silver Spring post office, an elderly man on the streets of Washington, a Bowie schoolboy.
By the end of the three-week shooting spree in October 2002, 10 people were dead. Three others were injured. Who could do such a thing? And why?
Mildred Muhammad wondered that, too, until federal agents knocked on her door and began asking questions about her ex-husband, John, the former military man who had once wowed her with his charm; the father of her three children; the control freak who once kidnapped their children and kept them away from her for 18 months. When police finally caught up with him after the kidnapping and returned the children, she fled with them to the Maryland suburbs, where she had been living with relatives in hiding.
The year after the shootings brought a conviction and death sentence for John Muhammad, who at press time was scheduled to be executed Nov. 10. His teen accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, got a life sentence without parole. For the ex-wife, who says she was verbally and emotionally abused throughout the marriage, time has brought healing, peace and a new memoir: "Scared Silent: The Mildred Muhammad Story." In this edited excerpt, Mildred Muhammad shares those harrowing moments when she and her children learned the identity of the sniper who terrorized the Washington area.
We were eating dinner and listening to the television news on Oct. 22, when we heard that a bus driver named Conrad Johnson had been shot while working. I heard the newscaster talk about how Mr. Johnson was in his mid-30s, with a wife and children, and each bit of information seemed to strike my heart deeply. When they showed his picture, I dropped my fork and started weeping. The children stared at me. I was upsetting them, so I went into the bathroom and cried into a towel.
The next morning on the news and in the paper, I heard more about Mr. Johnson. I got sick to my stomach as they talked about how devoted a family man he was. I thought about his wife and her having to raise her children alone. I thought about the hardship that comes along with that and coming to terms with such a loss. He's dead for no reason, I thought. Each time I repeated in my head how his wife had lost a husband and a best friend and his children had lost a father and a best friend, I wept. I was thinking about how often the news reports were about black men who didn't care about their families and how this news was about one who was gunned down while working to provide for his family.
The evening after Mr. Johnson was killed, on Oct. 23, the children and I were having dinner when someone knocked on the door. I went to answer it, and the children trailed behind me. I opened the front door and saw a tall, husky black man in a dark suit.
"Is Mildred Muhammad here?" he asked in a calm voice.
"Who is speaking?" I asked.
"ATF Agent Purvis Smith." He showed me the badge that hung around his neck. I sent my children back to the table to finish their dinner. Not knowing what this was about, I didn't want them to be alarmed at what would take place.
The agent immediately began asking questions. "Are you Mildred Muhammad?"