The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

20 years after D.C. sniper attacks, we keep ignoring what it was all about

Mildred Muhammad in 2008. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

They’re still not hearing her.

And that infuriates Mildred Muhammad. Because as media reports of the 20th anniversary of her ex-husband’s shooting rampage, the terror and drama of an entire region ducking for cover in supermarket parking lots, of schools canceling outdoor recess, force her to relive her own personal nightmare, no one’s talking about how it all started.

“It was a domestic violence and child custody issue,” said the woman who escaped becoming the final victim as that horrifying string of murders closed in, closer and closer to her.

Most of the time, Mildred Muhammad and the decayed, violent marriage she escaped are forgotten in the retelling of how John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 innocent people.

“They would rather believe that this was just two Black men in a car, killing innocent people to cause the government to put $10 million on a stolen credit card,” Mildred Muhammad said.

That’s the plot we heard in court, and the way history keeps recounting it.

“They don’t want to hear that a man would do all that just to kill his ex-wife, to get custody of his children,” Mildred Muhammad said.

'I will kill you': The connection between mass shooters and domestic violence

But before his ex-wife finally got custody of their three children — after years of abuse, after local police in Washington state didn’t enforce the restraining order a judge granted, after the folks who knew the couple didn’t believe her when she tried to tell them about the abuse, after he kidnapped the kids to Antigua for 18 months — John Muhammad laid it all out for her, told her exactly what his revenge was going to look like. Someday.

“He said: ‘You have become my enemy, and as my enemy, I will kill you,’ ” she said. “I knew he was going to shoot me in the head someday and bury me where no one would be able to find me.”

Knowing all this, she finally fled with the kids across the country, to be near her mom in Maryland. It was far, but she knew she was never safe.

On the third week of that rampage 20 years ago, when the detectives finally pieced it all together, came to her door and whisked her away to get her out of his path, she remembered what else he told her.

“They asked if I thought he could do something like this,” she said, “and I said, ‘Yes.’ I remembered he said to me at one time, ‘You know, I could take a small city, terrorize it and they would think it would be a group of people, but it would only be me.’”

She and her three children survived. And she has made it a mission to get the world to wake up and see that giant red flag that keeps waving in our faces, ahead of too many of our bloodiest tragedies.

I talked to Mildred about her work five years ago, as she was busy connecting the dots between intimate partner violence and mass shootings to audiences who have the power to make change.

Because with these mass shootings, we grope for the gunman’s motive: Mental illness? Racism? Religion? Politics?

Sometimes. But what the majority of cases have in common — long before online manifestos — is the abuse of their intimate partners, from the 1984 shooter who killed 21 people in a California McDonald’s to the killer of 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2017.

It’s in the histories of 70 percent of mass shooters studied in a recent Johns Hopkins University report.

And the prevalence of intimate partner violence is stubbornly high. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced such abuse — physical, mental or both — during their lifetime, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers are especially high for Black women, who are killed at 2½ times the rate of White women, and 90 percent of Black victims knew their killer, according to a Violence Policy Center study of CDC numbers. Social scientists are expecting that those numbers grew even higher during the pandemic.

“Domestic violence evolved into a worldwide epidemic, thanks to the pandemic,” Mildred Muhammad said.

Going to work has long been the only respite for women in abusive relationships. But when office workers began teleworking, victims became trapped. A recent U.N. report called it the “shadow pandemic.”

Mildred Muhammad began noticing the uptick immediately in her networks, and she quickly wrote another book, “Being Abused While Teleworking,” filled with tips for employers on how to spot abuse happening behind the Zoom calls and for victims on how to survive — and escape.

And she continues her work speaking on military bases, to prosecutors and police officers, reminding them that the abuser they stop could be a mass shooting that they prevent.

“The people he killed from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast would still be alive,” she said, “if they believed me. It all starts with believing women.”

We continue to treat domestic violence as a private issue, something that happens behind closed doors that’s none of our business.

But those terrifying three weeks in October showed us how violence accelerates, unchecked. That’s the moral of the D.C. sniper story and the part that Mildred Muhammad wants us to remember.