A painful anniversary approaches

Families of sniper victims struggle to understand their loss and to carry on

September 29, 2003|By Alec MacGillis and Gail Gibson | Alec MacGillis and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING -- One year later, the sites of the killings are again ordinary. People buy and sell used cars at Fitzgerald Automotive on Rockville Pike with little notice of the fading memorial nearby. At the Shell station on Connecticut Avenue, motorists fill up their cars without hesitation.

But elsewhere, the horror caused by a sniper's indiscriminate attacks lingers. In Abingdon, Va., Alice Fay Buchanan keeps expecting her son Sonny to show up at her door. In Olney, Margaret Walekar dreads attending family functions without her husband. In Oxon Hill, Denise Johnson plays the role of father at her two sons' sports events.

It was a year ago this week that a sniper killed five people in the span of 16 hours in Montgomery County, police say, before going on to shoot eight more people over the next three weeks, killing five of them.

For residents of the Washington area, the shootings instilled a terror that ended as suddenly as it began, with the arrests of John Allen Muhammad and teen-ager Lee Boyd Malvo at a Maryland rest stop.

For the few survivors of the shootings and the families of those killed, the nightmare has stretched on without end.

"I am still so confused. I don't know why this happened. Why did these people do that to an innocent person? What did they get out of it all?" said Margaret Walekar, whose husband, Premkumar Walekar, 54, was killed Oct. 3 while refueling his taxicab at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill.

"In most cases, they didn't kill one person," she said. "They killed whole families."

Every day, across the country, families are torn apart by horrible car accidents, bungled robberies, deadly feuds. What has made the sniper deaths so painful, say those left behind, is the persistent question of what prompted someone to kill strangers without provocation.

`Never get any answer'

"I keep asking, `Why? What did they do to them?'" said Charles-August Charlot, whose cousin Pascal Charlot, a 72- year-old Haitian-born carpenter, was killed late Oct. 3 in Northwest Washington. "That is the only question I keep asking, and I never get any answer."

In tiny Mountain Home, Idaho, far from the scene of last fall's violence, Marion "Boots" Lewis has decided that an answer might never come. His daughter, Lori Rivera-Lewis, 25, was killed Oct. 3 while vacuuming her van at the Shell station on Connecticut Avenue.

"There's no understanding. There's nothing to understand," he said. "How can any reasonably decent person understand this?"

Over the past year, the victims' families have responded to their losses in different ways. Those who survived the attacks include Bowie middle school student Iran Brown, now 14, who told reporters just two months after the shooting: "I'm not in any pain. I feel normal."

Some relatives of those who died have tried to reclaim their own normality by seeking solace in community. One family launched a scholarship fund to reflect the spirit of James "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, who was shot Oct. 3 while mowing a strip of lawn at Fitzgerald Automotive in Kensington. A small memorial tied to a utility pole marks the spot.

A landscaper, Buchanan was best known around the area for his volunteer work with Crime Solvers and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Montgomery County, where he served on the board, did lawn work for free and made frequent donations.

Soon after Buchanan's death, his generosity was reflected back in an outpouring of support. Friends and family formed Sonny's Kids, a foundation to provide scholarships for Boys & Girls Clubs members. Donations poured in, and this spring the foundation gave $9,500 in scholarships to four college-bound students.

"We had to celebrate my brother's life, to continue his good works," said Buchanan's older sister, Victoria Snider of Rockville. "You have to take all this negative and turn it into something good."

Suddenly a widow, Denise Johnson found a voice as a gun-control activist. The Prince George's County woman became one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought in Washington state against a gun manufacturer and a Tacoma gun store linked to the Bushmaster assault rifle used in the attacks. Eight other families have joined the lawsuit.

Johnson's husband was the final victim in last fall's attacks. Conrad Johnson, 35, a Montgomery County bus driver, was shot as he prepared to begin his morning route, and as police were closing in on the suspects.

She has struggled with the question of why authorities had not arrested Muhammad and Malvo by Oct. 22, when her husband was killed at dawn.

"I'm telling you, it ate at me," she said. "I was like, `You mean to tell me you couldn't catch these guys beforehand?'"

Gradually, she and her mother-in-law, Sonia Wills, focused their anger and energy on holding accountable the gun maker and gun shop linked to the crimes. Going further, Johnson has made the rounds on Capitol Hill to lobby against a measure that would shield gun manufacturers from the kind of legal claim she and other victims' families are pursuing.

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