For Pa. man, the capture of snipers is true reward

Tipster says money wasn't reason for aiding probe

March 21, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - In the fall of 2002, Whitney Donahue kept crossing the path of the Washington snipers. He was repairing supermarket refrigerators on a route stretching from Montgomery County to Richmond, Va., and said, "The whole area I was running was where they were shooting."

So as he drove home one night, Donahue paid close attention when the radio reported a New Jersey tag number for a dark Chevrolet Caprice said to belong to the shooters.

He wrote down the number and began scanning passing cars along Interstate 70. Then, about 12:45 a.m. Oct. 24, as he pulled into an almost deserted rest stop near Frederick, his headlights lighted up a dark Caprice with Jersey tags.

He checked the numbers. They matched. It appeared that two people were inside, but no one was moving. "I thought, `Oh, man,' " Donahue said.

Thus began a saga in which Donahue battled nerves and a weak cell phone signal to call in the news, then spent a fretful 10 minutes knowing he would have to follow the suspects if they left before police arrived.

About 2 1/2 hours later, with an armada of cruisers in place and the suspects asleep, police closed in for the arrest while Donahue watched from his van.

Yesterday, Donahue, 38, of Greencastle, Pa., officially laid claim to $150,000 for his efforts, as one of two men who will share the $500,000 reward for information that led to the prosecution of the suspects, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

Receiving the other $350,000 will be Robert Holmes, 47, of Tacoma, Wash., who phoned in the tip that led police to identify Muhammad and Malvo as the prime suspects.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan announced the rewards yesterday as he stood alongside Donahue and Vickie Snider, a sister of one of the victims, saying that this should close the book on the sniper ordeal.

"It was sort of the last thing left to do," Duncan said. "Justice has been served in this case."

Both Muhammad, 43, and Malvo, 19, have been convicted in separate trials, with Muhammad receiving a death sentence and Malvo getting life imprisonment without a chance for parole.

Duncan said that Holmes is getting 70 percent of the money because his tip helped police answer the most important question: Who were the suspects?

Donahue's tip answered the next question: Where were they?

Their tips were the two most important of about 60,000 that came in during September and October, when Muhammad and Malvo kept the entire Washington region on edge with a spree of sporadic shootings in which 10 people died.

Holmes, who knew Muhammad from their Army days, alerted the FBI that during a recent visit in Washington state Muhammad had referred to the younger Malvo - who was then 17 - as "a sniper." He also said Muhammad had been carrying a rifle like the one used in the killings.

Holmes seemed subdued about the reward when contacted Friday by The Sun, noting his friendship with Muhammad. He said he hadn't thought about what he might do with the money.

Donahue, too, played down the importance of the reward. That may have had partly to do with the presence of Snider, who during the trials had to repeatedly hear a tape of Malvo laughing and making engine noises as he confessed to killing her brother, James "Sonny" Buchanan, Oct. 3.

"I could use" the money, Donahue said, "but it wasn't my main reason for doing it. I never even thought about the reward until a day or two later, when people started asking me about it."

What preyed on his mind more, he said, was the time he spent at the rest stop. He recalled how he was unable to sleep afterward, even though he had been up all night.

"You can ask my wife," he said. "I woke her up about 5 o'clock, about an hour before the kids get up. She was a little bit irritable about it. Her comment was, `This better be good.'"

That was about the time of day Snider heard about the arrests as well, she said yesterday.

"I was elated and relieved that they were caught and that nobody else would die," she said. "But the grief was still there."

Yesterday, she got to thank Donahue in person, giving him a hug shortly after Duncan's announcement.

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