Bracing for the sniper trial

Muhammad to face court tomorrow in 6 Montgomery killings

April 30, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

ROCKVILLE -- Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was the shy little girl with fine blond hair, the teenager who didn't use profanity, the young woman absorbed in mystery novels and, finally, a 25-year-old nanny thousands of miles from home. She was Marion and Jo Lewis' daughter, Nelson Rivera's wife and Jocelin's mom.

At 9:58 a.m. Oct. 3, 2002, she became the fifth victim in a 16-hour rampage when she fell into the cross hairs of a sniper team that roamed Montgomery County in a beat-up, dark blue Chevrolet Caprice with a makeshift gun port built into the trunk, prosecutors say.

Marion Lewis, who lives in Idaho, says he can't think about his daughter without crying. "She got loans to go to a nanny school. She baby-sat. She loved being with the kids," he recalls.

But he and his wife have no plans to relive the horror of her death by flying in for the six-count murder trial of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, 45, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

"The next time I come to that area is, I hope, to see Mr. Muhammad executed" in Virginia, where he has been sentenced to death in one sniper shooting, Marion Lewis says during a telephone interview.

Victims' relatives and Montgomery County residents are bracing for a recounting of the nightmarish days and nights when the random killings terrorized millions of people from Baltimore to Richmond, Va., mostly claiming victims as they performed mundane daily tasks, such as mowing lawns and pumping gas. Lewis-Rivera was vacuuming her minivan at a Kensington gas station when she was shot.

For the victims' families, the trial will revive painful memories but could offer some satisfaction. For county residents, who stayed home on weekends and zigzagged through parking lots, the trial will evoke that frightening fall when no one could predict who would be the next victim.

"When I see the bench, I still think of the poor woman who got shot," says Ilse Pierkes, recalling the shooting of housekeeper Sarah Ramos as she sat on a bench in front of a restaurant in Silver Spring's Leisure World Plaza.

Denise Johnson, 37, who attended the two Virginia sniper trials, has been steeling herself for this trial. Her husband, Conrad E. Johnson, a 35-year-old Ride On bus driver, was the last victim.

"Initially I didn't want to go through it again," she says. "But I didn't want Conrad's murder to go unsolved. He [Muhammad] is responsible. He should be held accountable."

Lewis, too, wants to see Muhammad found guilty.

But some see the trial as pointless for a man already condemned to die. The trial is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Muhammad's accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, who is serving a life prison term in Virginia for one of the sniper shootings, has a fall trial date here.

"You are wasting time, money," says Luis Urbina of Wheaton, manager of Crisp & Juicy restaurant, the scene of the Ramos shooting.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler says a conviction would stand as insurance if Muhammad's Virginia conviction and death sentence, now under appeal, are overturned.

But Gansler says the trial and what he hopes are convictions will help the victims' families and others put the sniper incidents behind them.

"In discussions with the families, it became clear that they felt they did not have their day in court," Gansler says. "The community at large has not had its day in court."

Shooting rampage

Montgomery, the 13th-richest county in the nation and with a generally low crime rate, seems an unlikely locale for such terror. The 2,000-square-mile Washington suburb boasts an increasingly diverse population of about 922,000 residents and features upscale malls, business headquarters, federal offices and a high-tech corridor.

In the three weeks between Oct. 2 and Oct. 22, 2002, though, the county saw the first and last sniper deaths. Of the 13 sniper shootings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, 10 were fatal; six of those 10 were in Montgomery County.

About 6 p.m. Oct. 2, a bullet felled federal worker James D. Martin, 55, as he walked on a Shoppers Food Warehouse parking lot in Wheaton. A shooting rampage ensued during the next morning's rush hour: James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, was killed about 7:40 a.m. as he mowed the grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in White Flint; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54, was fatally shot about 8:10 a.m. as he pumped gas into his cab at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill; Ramos, 34, died about 8:35 a.m. as she waited for a ride; then, Lewis-Rivera was killed.

"The parents are supposed to go first," says Lewis-Rivera's father, choking back tears.

Next, the snipers cut down people in Washington, Virginia and Bowie. The victims defied categorization -- they were male and female, spanning races and ranging in age from 13 to 72.

Officials kept hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren indoors -- 140,000 in Montgomery County alone. Leafy neighborhoods were devoid of strollers. Gas stations hung blue tarps to shield customers at the pumps.

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