Sniper's imprint, faded, remains indelible

By Paul Duggan
Wednesday, November 11, 2009; A01

It's done now.

A dark odyssey that began with an unfathomable impulse to shoot strangers at random concluded for John Allen Muhammad as he lay strapped to a gurney in a rural Virginia prison.

Thiopental sodium rendered him unconscious. Pancuronium bromide halted his breathing. Potassium chloride stopped his heart. Three injections Tuesday, and his descent into infamy was complete, his body then bagged and carted to a morgue drawer.

Gone are the snipers.

Remember the lockdowns and Code Reds? Remember the tarot card, "Call me God," the Leisure World Plaza, the Ponderosa Steakhouse? Remember those surreal weeks of pervasive anxiety and the fortune spent by police agencies in a desperate search for a mythical white van and the person or persons perpetrating the madness?

Accounts are settled, best as can be expected.

What started long ago with a lunatic rage and escalated, evidence suggests, into a cross-country killing spree, climaxing in an October of blood and dread in the Washington area, ended for the 48-year-old former drifter in a grim concrete blockhouse called L Unit, the death chamber clock ticking his final minutes.

Case closed for Muhammad. And case closed for his ex-apprentice in murder, Lee Boyd Malvo, 24, locked away for life without parole, his guilty pleas negating any appeals.

No more trials, no more retribution. Seven years past the gunshots, all that remain are scars and memories -- physical and emotional; personal and communal -- fading over time for a lot of people, everlasting for others.

What did it teach us? What did we learn from that awful autumn?

Not much, says Police Chief Charlie T. Deane of Prince William County, where Dean H. Meyers, 53, stepped from his Mazda at a Sunoco on Oct. 9, 2002, and was felled by a bullet to the head -- the ninth of 13 victims shot that month, the seventh of 10 who were killed.

"The sad thing is, the biggest lesson from this is that two fools with a rifle can put an entire region of the country in a state of absolute fear," Deane says.

It might have been anyone in the cross hairs of that .223-caliber Bushmaster in those 22 days and nights when millions cowered from a roving, unseen menace -- when ballfields and school yards fell still; jittery motorists squatted like baseball catchers to fill their gas tanks; ubiquitous white box trucks loomed suspicious; and the dour visage of Charles A. Moose, the tight-lipped Montgomery County police chief, filled the news.

The stalkers were elusive; the attacks, indiscriminate. And death came for the unfortunate ones in otherwise mundane moments, without warning: in gas stations and parking lots, on a bench in front of a restaurant, on the lawn of an auto dealership.

James D. Martin, James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, Premkumar A. Walekar, Sarah Ramos, Lori Lewis Rivera, Pascal Charlot, Kenneth H. Bridges, Linda Franklin, Conrad E. Johnson. Those were the others slain. The wounded: Caroline Seawell, Iran Brown, Jeffrey Hopper.

White, African American, Latino: Eight men and four women, ages 25 to 72, plus 13-year-old Iran, shot in the abdomen in the drop-off lane of a middle school.

And that was just October's toll. After they were captured in the predawn Oct. 24 while snoozing in their dilapidated Chevy Caprice, Muhammad, an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and his young Jamaican protege were linked to nine earlier shootings, five of them fatal, in Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and Washington state.

What did it teach us? A simple truth, says Caroline Namrow, a doctor who rushed to Walekar's aid Oct. 3 after bullet fragments tore through his heart at a Mobil in Aspen Hill, the third of five killings in 16 hours in Montgomery. "We're on this Earth for such a short time," Namrow says. "You never know when it's going to end."

She pulled into the station in her minivan that morning as Walekar, 54, was gassing up his taxi. The two glanced at each other and smiled.

"The police told me that just before I got out of my car, the sniper, the younger one, had both Mr. Walekar and myself in his viewfinder," Namrow says. "He could see me sitting behind my windshield, and he could see Mr. Walekar standing outside his car.

"And he must have decided it was a clearer shot at Mr. Walekar," says Namrow, now 38, adding: "I still think about that. I realize how blessed I am. I think, for a matter of just a few moments, my life was saved. So I really try to enjoy my life and my children. I try to make an impact on the community I live in. I give a lot more of my time to charitable events."

It could have been her.

It could have been you.

"It could have happened to any of us," says Angel Navarro, 29, fueling his Toyota one recent evening at the Sunoco where Meyers died.

This is when Navarro best remembers those terrible weeks in 2002, when he happens to be standing where a victim went down. He buys gas here "two or three times a month," he says. Then, finished at the pump, he gets back in his Toyota and drives away, his life ahead of him, the long-ago crime scene receding in his rear-view mirror.

In that way, he's like most people who safely weathered the sniper crisis. It was astonishing and infuriating; it was nerve-racking and heartbreaking. When it ended, though, they were alive and well, and so were their loved ones. Normalcy returned. And now, seven years on, their memories of that month are soft-focused and generalized.

"Oh, at that time, I had to take the bus," says Pedro Quiroz, 49, a produce clerk at the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton. He is standing in the parking lot where Martin, 55, was October's first fatality, his spinal cord severed by a bullet. "Every day, the people at the bus were so afraid. . . . That's what I remember, always watching everywhere."

He shrugs and hurries along, apron in hand, late for work.

"The helicopters," says Susan Willcoxon, 56, pumping gas where Walekar was shot, a Sunoco now. "I can remember waking up in the morning, and every time I'd hear a helicopter, I'd put the radio on, and you'd hear that there'd been another shooting."

Like Quiroz, she smiles ruefully and moves on with her day. It didn't happen to them.

Instead, it happened to Bridges, 53, a father of six who stopped for gas Oct. 11 at an Exxon in Spotsylvania County and took a bullet in the back. "My children are permanently scarred, and my life has been turned around," says his widow, Jocelyn Bridges. And no amount of years off the calendar will assuage the anguish.

"I've had to fill that void," she says. "I couldn't fill it with memories of one moment on October 11th. I couldn't keep feeding that to my children. I had to show them how to . . . lift up their heads and their hearts and go forward. And it took everything."

Case closed.

But listen to one more victim. Paul J. La Ruffa, now 62, owned an Italian eatery in Clinton in 2002. On a September night before the sniper reign began, as La Ruffa sat in his car in the restaurant lot, Malvo walked up and shot him five times with a .22-caliber pistol.

"The police said Muhammad was right there," La Ruffa recalls. "He was there with the rifle. But luckily in my case, as it turned out, he sent Malvo out with the handgun. Not that he couldn't kill me with that. He certainly could. And it's a miracle he didn't."

His scars are faded now. The survivor's guilt he suffered, the nightmares he endured, the anxiety and restlessness that plagued him, have passed. He says his mind is clear, his body fit.

"It's always with me," La Ruffa says. "But it doesn't haunt me. I won't let it."

What did it teach us?

"That life is good," he says. "I mean, I look outside, and if it's sunny and nice, or if it's cloudy and cold, so what?

"Any day you wake up, it's just beautiful."

Staff writers Michael E. Ruane and Josh White contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company