Scary Facts About The Beltway Snipers

In October of 2002, the Beltway Sniper attacks paralyzed the Washington, D.C., area with fear. A shooting and killing spree conducted by two men with sniper rifles was unfolding in front of the eyes of the nation, thanks to television media. There were so many terrifying aspects of the 2002 sniper killings, from the tarot cards left as killer calling cards to the unconnected nature of the D.C. sniper victims. And then there was the scope of the event itself. After the two shooters were caught, authorities learned that John A. Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had likely shot people in seven states, as well as the D.C. area.

The facts of the case became more bizarre as authorities searched for answers as to why 17-year-old Malvo would participate in such heinous crimes. As the trial for Malvo unfolded, the young man's lawyers claimed that he was brainwashed by Muhammad. The defense didn't work; ultimately, Malvo was sentenced to life in prison, while Muhammad was executed.

The horrific shootings may be over, but the dark legacy of the Beltway Snipers lives on.

  • It Was A Nationwide Shooting Spree

    While the shootings in and around Washington, D.C. are most identified with the attacks, they were actually part of a nationwide crime spree. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo began the shootings in Washington state, and then moved east. All told, the two men shot people in Washington, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and D.C. They were definitively linked to 10 deaths and three injuries, though they likely caused many more during their rampage across the country.

  • The Targets Were Picked At Random

    The Targets Were Picked At Random
    Photo: User:Tom / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

    One of the most chilling aspects of the shooting spree is the random nature of the attacks. The victims had nothing in common other than their deaths. They were different ages, races, and genders.

    On October 2, 2002, 55-year-old James Martin was killed exiting a grocery store in Glenmont, MD. Then, the spree seemed to begin in earnest: on October 3, the snipers killed four more people in just over 12 hours in Montgomery County, MD. James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, a 39-year-old, was shot while mowing a lawn; 53-year-old Premkumar Walekar was killed while pumping gas. Shortly thereafter, 34-year-old Sarah Ramos was gunned down while sitting on a bench, and 25-year-old Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was shot while vacuuming a car. The rampage lasted until October 22.

    The attacks rattled the community. As one woman said, "We all vacuum our cars. We all get gas. We all go shopping and mow our lawns. We could have been there."

  • The Shooters Left Creepy Demands And Calling Cards

    One of the shooters left a note demanding $10 million be wired into an account connected to a stolen credit card. The message was found outside of a Ponderosa Steakhouse where the sniper shot and wounded a man on October 19, 2002, and it contained horrifying passages:

    "Your failure to respond has cost you five lives... If stopping the killing is more important than catching us now, then you will accept our demand [sic] which are non-negotiable... Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

    That wasn't all the men left at the scenes of their crimes. They also left tarots card with images of death, bearing the message "Call Me God."

  • The Culprits Allegedly Had Plans To Train Children As Terrorists

    As authorities searched for a motive behind the sniper attacks, it became clear that the men had aimed to spread terror. Lee Boyd Malvo testified that John Muhammad had planned to shoot one person for 30 days straight, murder a police officer, place bombs in school buses, and attack the funeral of the police officer they intended to kill.

    Muhammad apparently hoped to get money from the government in an extortion scheme to end the shootings. He then planned to use the money to fund a camp to train children to commit acts of terrorism in the United States.

  • The Shooters Drove A Mobile Sniper's Nest

    The Shooters Drove A Mobile Sniper's Nest
    Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Federal Bureau of Investigation / Public Domain

    John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the Washington, D.C. area from the trunk of a 1990 Chevy Caprice. The two had cut a hole in the trunk of the car to make room for a gun barrel, and removed sheet metal behind the back seat so that the shooter could move between the trunk and passenger area of the car without leaving the vehicle.

    This mobile operation made the pair particularly difficult to catch. They could aim, fire, and leave the scene of the crime quickly.

  • The Gun Used In The Attacks Can Be Legally Bought In 43 States

    The Gun Used In The Attacks Can Be Legally Bought In 43 States
    Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Federal Bureau of Investigation / Public Domain

    The Beltway snipers used a Bushmaster XM-15 military-style assault rifle in their shooting spree. John Muhammad stole the weapon from a gun dealer in Washington state where he had been practicing his marksmanship skills.

    Muhammad may have lifted the gun, but the weapon can be purchased legally in 43 states. The Bushmaster seems to be a popular choice for mass shootings; it was also used in the Newton, CT, school massacre.

    After the D.C. attacks, two survivors and families of six of the victims brought a lawsuit against Bushmaster Firearms and the store from which Muhammad stole the rifle. The suit was ultimately settled in favor of the plaintiffs, who received a $2.5 million settlement. Following the case, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied for the passage of stricter laws protecting gun manufacturers and dealers from future liability lawsuits.