Local Phantom Shooter Triggers Memories of My Days in D.C. and the Beltway Snipers

October 25, 2012, 5:24 PM by  Allan Lengel

A week ago, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard spoke about some crazed person who’s been going around shooting at cars.

What struck a chord with me in particular is what he said about D.C. :  "We don’t want anything to develop that certainly developed in the Washington area and paralyzed that area, rightfully so and understandably so for a long time."

I was living in Washington in October 2002 when two snipers killed 10 people and seriously wounded three others in the region.  People were terrified, afraid to fill up their gas tanks.  People were afraid to sit near the window at the place I got my haircut at on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, just north of Georgetown. In public, you were really forced to be  little paranoid.

As of last week, no one had been injured. But some bullets came awfully close in the 22 incidents that were reported last week in Oakland, Livingston and Ingham counties. Most involved the gunman shooting at cars. That changed on Saturday. After a lull of more than a week, authorities suspect the man returned to action. He shot at two cars, wounding one person.

Hunting for shooters like this can be a daunting task. In the D.C. case,  scores of FBI, ATF and Secret Service agents and deputy U.S. Marshals were on the hunt, along with police departments including D.C.,  Prince George’s and Montgomery County.

The ordeal lasted about three weeks. It was a long three weeks.

I worked day and night on the story as a reporter for the Washington Post -- along with about 30 other reporters. Day and night authorities tried to figure out who was doing this.

There were blunders on the part of law enforcement. There were false assumptions. There were little turf battles. But there was also some first-rate investigative work.  

Some area residents grew impatient and skeptical of law enforcement’s lack of results. Public pressure mounted. People were dying. Fear flourished. On Oct. 11, for example, at 9:30 a.m., Kenneth Bridges, 53, was fatally shot while pumping gas at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Va. He was one of many.

I remember my colleague at the Washington Post, Martin Weil, appearing on the Charlie Rose Show and being asked by Rose if law enforcement knew more than what it was letting on publicly. 

“I would certainly hope so,” said Weil.  

Some commentators on TV assumed it was an angry, middle aged white man, probably unemployed, probably a veteran. Wrong. It was an angry, middle-aged black man, John Allen Muhammad, 42, and a black teen, Lee Malvo, who was 17 at the time.

John Allen Muhammad 1 Sized

During the hunt, authorities also acted on a tip -- and a bad one at that -- that a white boxed van, that was spotted near the scene in the first round of shootings, may have had a connection. It didn’t.

Law enforcement sources told me they were skeptical of the tip, but authorities kept wasting their time hunting for a white van. When you've got nothing else, you have to go with something.

At one point, in the thick of it all,  a D.C. cop I was chatting with on the phone read me an internal police teletype saying they were on the look out for a dark colored Chevy Caprice that may have had a connection to a sniper shooting in D.C. That had not publicly surfaced.

For some reason, the editors kept leaving that detail out of the stories. They didn't think all that much about it.  It took me three days to get the paper to publish that tip, and only after I called Police Chief Charles Ramsey and got him to confirm that on the record. Even then, it ended up in about the 17th paragraph of the story. 

Eventually,  authorities got a tip that the two were at sleeping at a rest stop in Middleton, Md. The snipers were inside a 1990 navy blue Caprice.

Muhammad was put to death by lethal injection in Virginia in November 2009. His partner in crime Lee Malvo is serving a life sentence.

I mention all of this because it’s important for law enforcement to work together, to keep an open mind when following up tips and keep the public engaged and on the look out.

And most of all, as the sheriff said, it’s important that this not turn into another D.C. sniper case.

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