Awaiting the end for daughter's killer
Some victims' families will watch sniper die; others won't revisit pain

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

MOUNTAIN HOME, IDAHO -- The setting sun is streaming in the living room window of Marion Lewis's house as he puts aside his cigarette and starts telling the story of the day his daughter was murdered.

He is 57, a bulky, balding man sitting in his stocking feet. He has a brown bandanna around his neck, gray hair tied in a ponytail, and his glasses and a pack of cheap Seneca cigarettes are stuffed in his shirt pocket. He shoos away his two beagles, who retreat out the dog door.

He remembers the day, Oct. 3, 2002, when Lori Lewis Rivera was shot to death by the D.C. snipers at a gas station in Kensington. Two thousand miles away, her father was oblivious, out in the wilderness running a giant rock-crushing machine. Lewis stares at the floor as he recalls it, kneading his beefy hands and wiping away tears with his fingers.

He can still hear the phone ringing and ringing back at the motel where he was staying that day, as he stood in the shower washing off the grime and wondering who could be calling.

Seven years since John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo went on a homicidal rampage across the Washington area, their work still torments the families it touched.

But at 9 p.m. Tuesday, if all goes as scheduled, Muhammad, the mastermind, is to be executed in Virginia by injection -- bringing closure, justice and finality, victims' friends and families say, to a saga that haunts the community still. Malvo is serving a life term in prison without the possibility of parole.

"I don't have any doubt that I could pull the switch or push the plunger myself," Lewis said.

Between Oct. 2 and Oct. 24, 2002, when they were captured, Muhammad, then 41 and a former U.S. Army soldier from Louisiana, and Malvo, his 17-year-old sidekick, terrorized the District, Maryland and Virginia, shooting and killing people at random from the cover of their battered car. Sixteen people were shot, 10 fatally.

Their deadliest period was a 27-hour stretch spanning Oct. 2 and 3, in which six people were murdered within a few miles of each other in Montgomery County and Northwest Washington. Four more were slain and three more were wounded over the next two weeks. Five others had been killed and four others wounded by the pair, authorities think, in shootings across the country during the eight months leading up to the final bloodletting.

One of those killed Oct. 3 was Lori Lewis Rivera, a 25-year-old nanny and mother. She was vacuuming her employer's minivan at a Shell station at Connecticut and Knowles avenues when she was shot in the back. The bullet fragmented inside, destroying her left lung.

Now, her father wants to watch Muhammad's execution in the death chamber of Greensville Correctional Center, near Jarratt, south of Richmond. Technically, Muhammad is being executed for the Oct. 9 murder of Dean H. Meyers, 53, a civil engineer from Gaithersburg who was shot while buying gas near Manassas.

Lewis and his former son-in-law, Nelson Rivera, plan to travel to Virginia this week to witness the execution. (In the seven years since the shootings, Rivera has moved to California and remarried, and he has two more children.)

Bearing witness

"I want to see what he made me see," Lewis said. "He forced us to look at our little girl laying in a coffin. I want to see justice done. I want to see him take a last breath. . . . I want to be able to describe it to the rest of the family."

Rivera said: "I want to see if he has any remorse, if he feels sorry about what he did. He doesn't have to tell me, 'I'm sorry.' . . . He needs to be sorry and repent himself for what he did. . . . I want to see in his face, if he fears to die, because he didn't give any chance to those victims, not a little bit of a chance. . . .

"My wife took the [baby] car seat out of the van and put it on top of the vacuum and they still killed her."

Officials said last week that what witnesses will see is Muhammad strapped to a metal gurney. He will be wearing flip-flops, denim pants and a special short-sleeved denim shirt to allow technicians to attach a heart monitor and two intravenous lines -- one for each arm -- through which the deadly drugs will be administered.

Muhammad will first receive thiopental sodium, which will put him to sleep, then pancuronium bromide, to stop his breathing, then potassium chloride, to stop his heart. Death normally occurs in seven to 15 minutes, officials said.

"A picture's worth a thousand words," Lewis said last week in an interview here. "And I very seriously doubt that the news agencies are going to waste a thousand words on his death."

Virginia corrections officials won't say how many victims' families plan to attend Tuesday's scheduled execution, but several besides Lewis are expected.

Still, other victims' relatives, such as Jocelyn Bridges of Philadelphia, whose husband, Kenneth, 53, was gunned down Oct. 11 at a gas station near Massaponax, Va., don't want to revisit past anguish.

"I would like to be moving forward with my life," the mother of six said last week. "That has nothing to do with forward motion. That's a snapshot in time. My life is a moving train. It's moving forward. I learned that from my husband . . . got a train to keep moving on.

"I don't have to go back and rent or borrow or go to any more nightmares."

James Ballenger, whose wife, Hong Im Ballenger, was slain by the snipers in a Sept. 23, 2002, robbery outside her Baton Rouge beauty shop, went further. "I don't want nothing to do with it anymore," he said last week by phone. "I'm remarried. I'm done with everything."

Ending a long wait

But Lewis, an unemployed construction worker whose bum left leg forces him to sit or squat instead of stand for long periods, is elated that he will be able to witness Muhammad's death.

"He's dying for the murder of our daughter, and I'm still alive," he said. "They've dragged this out. I could have passed away by the time they executed him. Or they could have changed the laws and never executed him."

Lewis said he would favor a more "gruesome" method of execution. "Let's give the guillotine a shot," he said.

Lewis, a native of Homer, Ill., migrated to the vast, arid valleys of southern Idaho with his wife, Jo, and children, Lori and Charity, in the early 1980s. He's been a carpenter, a stonemason, a truck driver, a machine operator and a gold prospector.

He is being flown to Virginia by the syndicated television show "Inside Edition" and is staying in Maryland with Rivera's brother.

Virginia corrections officials said Muhammad will have a chance to say some last words.

Lewis said he wishes he could, too.

"It would be short and simple: 'I'm here to see you die . . . son of a bitch,' " he said.

Lori was a little girl when the family moved to the small, three-bedroom house on South 12th Street East in Mountain Home with the poplar tree out front. There are still pictures of her on the living room walls -- as a toddler, and as a young married woman, posing with her husband and daughter, Jocelin. "She always had a kind of impish smile," her father said.

Lori attended Mountain Home High School a few blocks away, babysat for neighbors, and decided early on that she wanted to be a nanny. She left home at 19, attended a nanny school near Portland, Ore., and eventually found a job in the Washington area. There she met her husband, married in 1997 and had her daughter two years later. The family lived in Silver Spring.

Lewis and his wife always hoped Lori would one day return home. "We kept trying to get her back here," he said. "Especially after they were married and we had a grandchild that all we'd seen is pictures of."

But the small town and stark beauty of the mountain-rimmed valleys apparently had lost their charm. She told her parents, partly in jest, and her husband that she didn't like Idaho anymore.

Crushed in Idaho

Lewis said her death came on a day that still haunts him.

"I was working on a portable rock crusher," he said. "We were out in the middle of nowhere. . . . We came off the highway and run back into the desert. Because of the remoteness and because we worked as many hours as we could a day, we didn't get back into the hotel until about 6:30 or 7 that evening.

"Running a rock crusher is pretty dusty work," he said. "First thing you do when you get back to wherever you're staying at is you get down and you get a shower. I was in the shower, and the phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing. When I got out, it was my wife telling me my daughter had been murdered."

He paused.

"I broke down for a bit," he said. "Talked to my wife for a little bit. I got off the phone."

Lewis closed his eyes as his cigarette smoldered in the ashtray.

His boss sent someone to drive him home, he said.

Later, he traveled to Maryland for a funeral service for Lori. "I will never forgive the people who took her away from us," he told reporters.

The Lewises brought her body home to Idaho and buried her in Mountain View Cemetery, just across American Legion Boulevard from where she had lived and gone to high school.

Over her grave they placed a gray tombstone etched with a motif her sister had drawn for Lori's wedding invitations. It depicts a storybook castle, with pennants flying and a horse-drawn carriage approaching on a winding path.

"It's the fairy tale," Lewis said in the cemetery one evening last week.

As he prepared to journey to Muhammad's execution, he said his life has not been drastically different in the seven years since his daughter's death, except for one thing.

A few years ago, he was out of work and got hired to run a rock-crushing machine. It was a good job but brought back terrible memories. "I was reliving that night every day," he said.

He lasted only two weeks.

"I couldn't do it," he said.

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