October marks the 20th anniversary of the D.C. sniper attacks, which not only claimed 10 lives and had the D.C. metropolitan area under siege, but brought the late Charles Moose to national prominence as Montgomery County, Maryland’s even-keeled, reassuring police chief.
In the several years since John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo’s conviction, and Muhammad’s execution in the state of Virginia, few, if any, have been hard pressed to say that much has changed in an era where gun-related deaths in America occur every day.
Amid all the discussion about the gun violence in the U.S., patrons of Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland continue to visit a reflection terrace that honors Muhammad and Malvo’s victims. When Montgomery County officials unveiled the memorial in 2004, they heralded it as an overture to grieving families.
For those families, and others in close proximity to the killings, those three weeks in the fall of 2002 remain etched in their memories.
A Kensington, Maryland resident, who asked to be identified as Juanita, said her community experienced confusion and anxiety after Muhammad and Malvo shot and killed Lori-Ann Lewis Rivera at a Shell gas station less than a mile from Juanita’s house in 2002. For her, law enforcement officials’ changing narratives about suspects and the vehicle of interest intensified the situation.
Juanita said the killing spree, and what she later learned about Muhammad’s motivations, fueled her disdain for institutions that haven’t tackled the nation’s mental health crisis.
“It was a personal attack against all of us in Kensington who went to that gas station to fuel up or vacuum our cars,” Juanita said. “America has gone nowhere in addressing mental health. We talk a good game but we don’t produce results. People are trying to find beds and are still suffering from [psychotic] episodes. We have mentally ill people who don’t seek treatment because of stigma.”
From October 2 until their capture in the early morning hours of October 24, 2002, Muhammad and Malvo wounded three people in the D.C. metropolitan area and killed 10 others. Within that three-week span, officials canceled outdoor activities and people thought twice about walking around shopping centers, gas stations and other public areas.
By the time the two arrived in the D.C. metropolitan area, they had already killed seven people in other parts of the U.S., including Tacoma, Washington, Tucson, Ariz., and Hammond, Louisiana. An investigation later found that Muhammad had a vendetta against his ex-wife.
After Muhammad and Malvo’s capture, officials in Montgomery County acted quickly to honor the victims. Then-Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan (D) collaborated with Montgomery County Department of Parks, a designer, and a committee to accentuate a stone structure that had already been erected by a body of water at the Brookside Gardens reflection terrace.
One of the stone structures at the reflection terrace bears Rivera’s name in addition to that of James D. Martin, James L. “Sonny” Buchanan, Prem Kumar Walekar, Sarah Ramos, Pascal E. Charlot, Dean H. Meyers, Kenneth H. Bridges, Linda Franklin and Conrad E. Johnson. Other stones have etchings explaining the D.C. sniper attacks and espousing non-violence.
David Vismara, a Montgomery County official who served as director of Brookside Gardens in the early 2000s, described the reflection terrace, and the memorial itself, as an effort to comfort those who remain, left to grapple with the random killings.
“To be able to do something for the victims, to show their friends and families they would not be forgotten was a good feeling,” said Vismara, who currently serves as chief of horticulture, forestry and environmental education division at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
“We [were] helping people get through the grieving process. I hope it helps telling them that [their family members] won’t be forgotten.”
A Frederick County, Maryland resident, who asked to be identified as Barbara, said she will never forget how the D.C. sniper attacks changed her outlook on the U.S. experience. In 2002, Barbara lived near Rockville, Maryland where Muhammad and Malvo killed Buchanan as he was mowing grass.
Barbara said the first six killings, all of which took place within a span of two days, made her think twice about stopping at gas stations and other open areas while on her trips along Interstate 270.
Decades later, after travels abroad with her family, Barbara continues to think about how incidents of violence and related discussions have proliferated in the U.S. This week, while on her sixth visit to the reflection terrace, Barbara said those three weeks in 2002 marked a turning point in her life.
“At the time, I didn’t realize this is where this country was and how sheltered I had been,” Barbara said. “It’s very ugly and pervasive. It doesn’t feel like the lessons are being learned. People need to feel that they belong and they are appreciated and heard.”