Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Snipers, Five Years Later

I was just hitting stride in my radio news reporting job when the news came in early October 2002 about this sniper--or snipers--killing five people in one day in DC and its Maryland suburbs. One of the shootings, in Aspen Hill, MD, was very close to where my next-door neighbor sells motorcycles. Ultimately, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo would gun down 13 people, from Ashland, VA to Aspen Hill, from Bowie, MD to Manassas, VA, killing 10 of them.

Here in Frederick, everyone was certain that the snipers were going to make their way here. Like elsewhere in DC, MD, and VA, the area was literally terrified:
  • Gas stations offered full service at self-serve prices because customers were afraid to get out of their cars.
  • One gas station had police tape around it and a police car sitting in front of it. The station was located next to US Rt. 15, a busy north-south expressway. It turned out that the station's computer system was down, and it just happened to be where the police filled up their vehicles.
  • The Frederick Keys had to cancel their new "Field of Screams" Halloween production because of the stadium's proximity to I-70, making the attendees an easy target for the snipers.
  • Police had pulled over hundreds of white box trucks because that was what witnesses thought they saw leaving the scene of the shootings.
  • I kept looking over my shoulder one night as I walked from my house to the Giant Food store in the dark.

Then late one night, it seemed like something was going to break in the case. I stayed up and watched the ubiqiutous Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose announce the car that was really being sought: a blue 1990 Chevy Caprice.

Not four hours later, I was awakened by a phone call from the lady who did the morning news for our country station. She had sent me on wild goose chases before, but I had a feeling that when she told me about a news conference at the new Frederick County Law Enforcement Center, this was the real deal. I fell out of bed, got dressed, and left without eating, shaving, showering, or brushing my teeth. Indeed, at 5:30 AM, the Maryland State Police announced that Muhummad and Malvo had been captured at the westbound rest area on I-70 between Myersville and the summit of South Mountain. My BIL in Connecticut told me he saw me in the crowd on CNN.

I raced back to the station with my audio and began to edit it and write up the stories to be put on the air. Next thing I knew, the phone began ringing off the hook. Our stations were part of the Clear Channel empire, and many of those stations looked and saw that we were right near the scene. I spent much of that morning on the phone with radio shows in Tampa, Albany, New Haven, Denver, and other cities.

Meanwhile, LC had come home from her night shift at the hospital. She and her cow-orkers knew something big was up, although they weren't sure what. When she pulled into our driveway, she found that Fox 5's news helicopter was hovering right over the house, making it impossible for her to sleep until it moved on!

Once I was done with the other stations (well, almost; I had another stint later with Denver on my cell phone), I headed up to the scene. I-70 was reopened in both directions, having been closed when the arrest was made. But the actual rest area was off limits while the State Police and the Frederick County Sheriff's Office searched the car and the area for evidence. So I turned at the next exit 5 miles to the west and came back to the eastbound rest area, where the media was encamped (those without helicopters). I interviewed several onlookers, including Myersville Mayor Wayne Creadick, who was tired of his town getting notoriety for all the wrong reasons; the year before, a truckload of missiles had overturned nearby. As I spoke to them, truckers heading downhill on eastbound I-70 blew their horns in gratitude to the police.

Only around noon did I get to eat anything, and I had been running on pure adrenalin. But my boss still had me work on another story before I could go home about 4 PM, having worked a 12-hour day. That wouldn't be my last 12-hour day, but that's another post.

The story continued to evolve in the coming days, as we learned about:

  • The Goodwill employee who, along with another motorist, notified the police that the snipers were at the rest area. I got to interview his boss, since he wasn't doing any himself.
  • The trucker who followed police direction to block the exit with his rig. More about him in a bit.
  • The shocking discovery that Muhummad and Malvo had been seen casing the town of Myersville, even driving near the elementary school. During one of the trials, one of them admitted they planned to shoot someone at the Frederick Outback Steakhouse, where they could slip onto Route 40.
  • The tying of the snipers to unsolved murders elsewhere in the nation, and discovering their weapons cache in Washington State.

On the first anniversary of the arrests, I got to interview the above-mentioned truck driver, Ron Lantz of Kentucky, who had since retired. He said he really didn't give any thought to any danger when the police asked him to move his rig across the exit ramp of the rest area after he spotted the Caprice. Muhammad and Malvo were caught while asleep, and without a shot.

But that wasn't the first time Lantz had run across the snipers. The week before, he had helped them change a tire on northbound I-270 . . . in Frederick! At the time, no one had a description of the two, and everyone was still looking for a white box truck and not an old blue Caprice.

As if that weren't enough, Lantz was part of an impromptu prayer meeting later that week at a truck stop on eastbound I-70 near Mount Airy. A group of truckers prayed together* that the snipers would be caught. Never underestimate the power of prayer!

That helped make October 2002 a month I'll never forget. I saved my tape with all the raw sound from that day.

*Side note: Truckers are useful folks. It was a trucker who helped capture the former business manager of our parish. He had stolen over $100,000 from the church, left his family, and started seeing someone else on the sly in Dover, PA. The trucker heard the story on the radio and happened to know of a relative that was starting to see someone new; it turned out to be our business manager.


Anita Moore said...

Wow. I think "wow" pretty much sums it up.

Just remember, though: these guys had nothing to do with terrorism or jihad whatsoever.

Mom2BJM(Amy) said...

*touches Cyg - withdraws with a sizzle* Wow! How famous are you! Can't imagine being that close to big news! When I was a teenager I met the guy who helped what's-his-name, oh Howard Hughes, in the desert. Can't remember... oh Melvin Dumar. I met him once.

Cygnus said...

Actually, I interviewed Lantz by phone, which I also did a few times with a local gal from your area: Kim Komando. She's a sweetie.