10 years ago, snipers plunged the region into terror

'People were scared for their lives, as they should have been'

September 29, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

When the Washington-area snipers launched their shooting rampage a decade ago, Prince George's County restaurateur Paul LaRuffa suffered the same effects as everyone else: anxiety about leaving the house, fear of pumping gas, worry for loved ones — all adding up to a general jumpiness about when, where and whom the gunmen would strike next.

But in LaRuffa's case — though he didn't know it at the time — there was a difference.

He had been the snipers' first victim.

A month before the shootings that terrorized the region, LaRuffa, then 55, had closed his restaurant in Clinton for the night, walked out with a couple of friends and got into his car.

He was about to pull out when 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo approached, raised a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle and fired five .223-caliber rounds through the driver's side window.

The bullets pierced LaRuffa in the chest, abdomen and back.

As he staggered from his car, bleeding and breathless, he was bewildered.

"There was no relation to anything," he said last week. "Obviously, it was Sept. 5. There were no 'snipers.' It was a random, insane act of violence."

But within a month, that fear and confusion would spread throughout the area. It was 10 years ago this week that Malvo and his mentor, John Allen Muhammad, announced themselves with a burst of killings in Montgomery County and Washington.

The shootings on Oct. 2 and 3, 2002, left six dead in little more than 24 hours. Businesses closed; parents raced to schools to collect children.

Less than 13 months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an unknown enemy was again menacing the capital region. Security was increased at the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court; gas station owners hung tarps around their pumps to hide customers.

Ordinary citizens holed up in their homes. Those with unavoidable commitments ducked their heads as they scurried from house to car, from car to destination and back again.

Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive at the time, calls it the longest stretch of sustained terror in the United States since the Civil War.

"People were scared for their lives, as they should have been," he recalled last week. "It was three weeks of 'you could be killed at any time, just walking down the street, getting groceries, getting gas.' And you didn't know when the next shot was coming."

The shots kept coming — and so, eventually, did the taunts: "Call me God," on a tarot card left at one shooting, and "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time."

The task force of local, state and federal law enforcement, meanwhile, appeared to be making little progress in identifying what at first was believed to be a single shooter.

By the time authorities caught up to Muhammad and Malvo, at a rest stop off Interstate 70 in Frederick County, 10 people in Maryland, Washington and Virginia were dead, three others were wounded, and the region was changed.

Carl Lejuez speaks of the emotional toll the shootings took. The professor of clinical psychology at the University of Maryland and director of its Center for Addictions, Personality and Emotion Research cites studies that show that extended periods of anxiety can cause more psychological and physical harm than actual trauma.

"There was never a moment where you were in DefCon 10 — although I will tell you that when I had to pump gas, I kind of did it halfway in the car and halfway out," he said. "No one relaxed for three weeks. ... Long term, that's much worse than having gone through a traumatic event where maybe even someone was shooting at you."

The terror began on the evening of Oct. 2, when James D. Martin, a 55-year-old program analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was gunned down in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton.

The next morning, James "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, was mowing the lawn at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Bethesda. Premkumar Walekar, 54, was filling his taxi at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill. Sarah Ramos, 34, was sitting on a bench outside Leisure World. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was vacuuming her minivan at a Shell station in Kensington.

In little more than two hours, all were dead.

Vickie Snider was at an exercise class in Rockville when word of a shooting came. Class was canceled; the participants were told to get into their cars and go home.

Snider watched the news throughout the day. She had plans to catch up with her brother later. It wasn't until that evening, when the police detective came to her door with Buchanan's driver's license, that she learned he had been killed.

"You just go numb," she remembered last week. "It's like your brain can't handle it. You just want to say, 'No, it's a mistake.'

"Then I had to tell my parents."

With much of the Maryland State Police leadership away at a conference, Maj. Vernon Herron was acting chief of field operations statewide when the shootings began. He says the case was unlike any in the nation's history.

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