By Mildred Muhammad
Sunday, October 4, 2009
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?"
"I'm Mildred Muhammad," I said. "How are you today? I'm fine."
He responded with another question: "When was the last time you spoke with John Muhammad?"
My body shook. My hands began to sweat. "Why are you asking me that question?" I asked.
"We need an answer to that question," the agent insisted in a polite, calm tone.
"The last time I had any contact with John Muhammad was on September 4, 2001, in Washington state."
"Have you seen him since?"
"Why are you asking me these questions?"
"We need for you to come down to the police station to question you," he said. But he did not raise his voice one decibel.
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what you want. You don't understand. If you want me to identify John Muhammad, I can't go near him because he is going to kill me," I said.
Agent Smith still spoke in a soft, peaceful voice. "You can come with us to the police station, or we can question you here," he said.
"Bring your boys because I'm not going with you," I said.
I stood at the door as he walked back to his car to speak to someone who was sitting inside. Then he came back to face me.
"We really need you to come with us to the station," he said.
He was such a calm man that I did not feel threatened, even though I was scared. I decided I needed to get what seemed to be the inevitable over with so I could find out what was going on.
"Let me talk to my brother-in-law first," I said.
I went upstairs to get Chester's advice. I didn't have a clue what could be happening beyond them wanting to question me.
Chester advised me to cooperate with the police.
"I'll go, but I need to get my scarf," I told the agent. And I did get my scarf, but, actually, I wanted to call someone. I phoned one of the sisters at the mosque. I needed to let somebody else know that I was being taken to police headquarters and questioned about my ex-husband. I told them I needed legal advice.
In the car, Agent Smith asked me about the Nation of Islam. He asked about my experience as a Muslim and about the diet. Then, after chatting for a while, he asked, "What do you think of John?"
I became guarded and wondered why he was asking me such a question.
"He's a man of his word," I said. "He means what he says and says what he means."
"Sounds like you're proud of him," the agent said.
"I understand him," I said.
"I'm only asking questions, so I can understand him better," Agent Smith said.
My cellphone rang. It was a woman named Melinda, an attorney in the Nation. She asked if I was okay and wanted to know what was going on.
"I don't know, but you can talk to Agent Smith," I said, passing the phone.
They talked briefly. He didn't say much. I didn't listen because I was busy looking out the window trying to figure out where he was taking me. I was in survivor mode. Listening to their conversation was not my priority. I had to know where I was going in case I needed to jump out and get back to my children. For months, I had been protecting myself when no one else would because they didn't understand or wouldn't listen to my warnings of the danger that I was in.
Before Melinda hung up, she advised me to cooperate and told me to call her if I needed anything else.
When we got to the police station, I was surprised to see Jenson Jordan, the FBI agent who had taken the first missing persons report I had filed in Maryland. "When was the last time you saw John Muhammad?" Agent Smith asked again.
I repeated the first answer I had given him.
At one point, they had me listen to a CD with a voice on it.
"Have you ever heard that voice before?" one of them asked.
"No." The voice didn't sound familiar at all.
They showed me a letter. "Do you recognize the handwriting?" an agent asked.
"I don't know the handwriting," I said.
I could tell they were getting frustrated with me, as if I were supposed to know the answers to the questions they were asking. Agent Jordan kept walking in and out of the room as the others questioned me. Each time he returned, he seemed more anxious. He was talking on his cellphone when he paused, turned to me and said, "Ms. Muhammad, we're simply going to have to tell you."
The other two agents were silent. They looked at him, waiting.
"Ms. Muhammad, we're going to name your ex-husband as the sniper," Agent Jordan said.
"What?" I leaned over and dropped my forehead to the table. "Oh, my God!"
"Do you think he would do something like this?" one of the men asked.
I raised my head from the table, looked up at the ceiling and around the room. I focused on a corner in the room, and, for the first time, everything seemed to come together and make sense to me. So I said, "Yes."
"Why would you think that?" one of them asked.
For some reason, I remembered something that had happened in Tacoma when John and I were watching a movie. I couldn't even recall the movie's name, but I remembered him saying to me: "You know I could take a small city, terrorize it, and they would think it was a group of people. But it would only be me." I recalled that John was really confident when he told me this. I asked him, "Why would you do something like that?" He looked away and changed the subject.
"Ms. Muhammad, didn't you know he was shooting people all around you?" an agent asked.
I was operating on automatic pilot. "I didn't know the area. How would I know that?" I said.
They recounted the sniper shootings.
"The man shot at the restaurant was right up the street from you," someone said. "The man shot in Brandywine was only two miles from you."
I was stunned that I had never even considered the possibility.
"Did he ever bring a weapon home?" an agent asked.
"He was in the military. I thought they all did that. He brought home his M16 rifle and cleaned it and took it back."
"I don't think the military does that," an agent commented.
"I don't know what they do, but John did," I said.
They showed me photos of guns.
"I haven't seen this one, but John had a gun," I said.
"Where was it?"
"In the shed."
"What kind of gun?"
I told them it was the kind of gun that you opened the barrel to put in bullets.
They showed me more photos of guns. I pointed to one.
"Was it in the house?" one of the agents asked.
"No, outside in the shed."
When we were evicted, I had gone out into the shed to clean it out, and I had seen the gun and rounds of bullets.
Finally, the agents were finished.
"Okay, Ms. Muhammad, we want to put you in protective custody. Do you want to go?" someone asked.
My only question was, "You have to ask me that?" Of course, I wanted to go.
They explained that some people would not want to go.
"Have you caught him yet?" I asked.
"No," an agent replied.
"Then, yes, sir, I want to be put in protective custody."
I told them they had to place my children and sister and brother-in-law in protective custody also. At first they balked at taking my sister and her husband, but I insisted.
"If he goes to the house, he will kill them," I said.
It was still light outside when they had picked me up, but now, as we left, it was dark. I still couldn't tell where I was. My cellphone rang. It was Melinda, the lawyer. I told her what was going on. She wanted to come to the station to meet me, but I said there wasn't time.
When we got to the house, my sister was watching the television. They were already showing a tree trunk in the yard of a house in Tacoma, where they said police believe the sniper had gone to practice his marksmanship. The media had not gotten the information yet that John was named as a suspect.
My sister looked up when she saw me. "What's going on?" she asked. She looked angry.
I went over to her to explain. "They named John as the sniper," I said. "We have to pack up and go with the police."
I gathered up things for me and the children. Agent Smith remained his calm self, even while encouraging me to hurry.
I took Lil' John into the bathroom. "They have named your dad as the sniper," I said. He went limp. I caught him before he collapsed. "Honey, you can't break down on me now. You have to be strong. I have to go down and tell the girls, and we have to get our things together and go with the police."
I went downstairs and told the girls about their father, and they started crying. I didn't have time to think about how to tell them, so I just said it, the same way I had told John. They asked questions, but I told them I didn't know anything yet.
My children and I were put in one car. My sister and her husband were placed in another. An officer told me that just as we left the station, the media had pulled into the lot. I held my children close. They were scared. I was, also. But, as usual, I tried to remain composed and in control for them.
In the car, I could not believe what was happening to us. We went from being a family struggling to make ends meet, to a family on the run. I thought about my job at Southern Maryland Hospital. When would I be able to go back to work? How long would it take for them to catch John? Why was this happening to us? Why didn't people listen to me? What did I do wrong: Did I scream long enough? What would people think of me and my children?
I had always wanted a simple life, to be a good wife, to be a good mother, to be a good servant of God. I had so many questions and so many confusing thoughts. But it came to me in that car that I had to let all of it go and turn it over to God. After my mind rested on this thought, I realized that I needed to turn my energy toward my children instead of to worrying. I looked at them and realized that all of them were clinging to me. Even John was holding me tighter than usual. They were looking to me for emotional strength. Therefore, I could not cry, even though I wanted to scream.
I wanted someone to hold me and tell me what to do. I wanted someone to ask me what I wanted. I wanted someone to talk to me with compassion and understanding. I needed someone to hug me and tell me everything would be all right. I was confused and hurt, but there was no one there for me. I was not who I used to be, a woman dependent upon a man for self-worth or even strength. I had to figure out how to do all of this on my own. So I said a prayer: "Oh, Allah, give me the strength to bear all of this. I know You would not put anything on me that I can't bear. I ask that You give me the wisdom to make the right decisions as they come up. Help me to care for my children as they struggle to understand. And most of all, Lord, help me to care for myself and to remember Your word that You will rescue me and protect me. I need You, Lord, because I have no one else to call. Amen."
We went into protective custody that Wednesday night, Oct. 23. They escorted us to a Maryland hotel. The children and I were in one room, and my sister and brother-in-law were in another.
I was exhausted. I don't even remember whether they placed a guard at the door. As soon as we got into the room, I turned on the television and saw John's picture. The children started crying. I walked up to the television, put my hand on the screen, and whispered, "What happened to you?" My son got in one bed and began crying; the girls went to the other bed and did the same.
I could not imagine what had happened that had caused John to reach this point. It was unfathomable.
I consoled the children until they were no longer crying. They finally went to sleep. Then I went into the bathroom. I took a pillow with me. I needed to cry. I turned on the water in the bathtub and the sink. I sat on the closed toilet, put my head in the pillow and screamed. I cried so hard that I had to sit on the floor so I wouldn't fall. I don't know how long I was in there before my cellphone rang. It was a woman.
"Ms. Muhammad, this is Nicole. Do you remember me?" she asked.
"No," I said.
She told me she was a victim advocate whom I'd met when I went to the domestic violence office in D.C. Then I remembered meeting her when I registered my restraining order.
"How are you?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said.
She reminded me I had her card and told me to call if I needed anything. Then she said the words I needed to hear. "Ms. Muhammad, you will be all right."