"Like A Duck In A Noose" - The final episode of our true crime podcast about the DC Snipers

The end of the DC Snipers’ reign of terror came October 24, 2002 - shortly after police publicly identified John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo as their prime suspects and gave a description of the car they were driving to carry out their terrifying and deadly crimes. It was a combination of good police work, the outreach from the killers themselves, and their life of crime preceding their killing spree that would eventually solve the case.

Retired ATF Special Agent Mike Bouchard recalls how it started to come together.

"Malvo had been calling different hotlines and different things. Didn't think that people would take him seriously after the Ponderosa shooting in Ashland, Virginia. Malvo, we're supposed to call him back. Their note was, 'call us at this number in the morning' but we had taken the note because it was sealed. We had to do DNA and fingerprint. So by the time we opened it and saw it, they wanted us to call him like 8:00 am. Time had passed. Fortunately, they were off by one number on the number they left us, which was a pay phone. So we had to go out and surreptitiously say, 'you know, we tried you at the number' and they thought we were messing with them. So Malvo then called a priest in Ashland and started talking about, 'We're the shooters from Montgomery.' and it was interesting. They called the Catholic priest, you know, about God. And then we started putting things together like 'God'. All these different things are always mentioning 'God'. It's somebody who has faith."

Investigators starting looking for unsolved shootings in any place named Montgomery, and hit on Montgomery, Alabama.

"Montgomery, Alabama had an unsolved shooting at a convenience store where a woman was shot and killed. " said Bouchard.  "But a witness saw the shooter run away and drop a magazine (as in a catalog). And there was an identifiable fingerprint in that magazine. They ran it against the databases. Nothing came back. So we then ran it against the immigration database and had a hit on Malvo when he came into the country. So then we said, you know, with Malvo, who did he come into the country with? You know, John Williams, John Muhammad. So then we started looking at John Muhammad. But at the same time, we had a tip from Tacoma, Washington. Robert Holmes, who said, 'Hey, I used to live with some people up here. I used to shoot into a tree stump. He had a kid with him. He used to call him Sniper."

By then, they had a lead on the car Muhammad might have had, and started running the registration. It was all coming together, but not in enough time before RideOn Bus driver Conrad Johnson was shot.

Bouchard tells us there was a moment when he thought the case might have been blown.

"We were following up with Mr. Holmes at the time, sent teams out there to his house. They were supposed to do it quietly and cut the tree stump out, but everybody showed up with their agency jackets on and it became like, now this is on TV. Now, if these guys are watching they got an idea we're on to them. Of course, if they know we're on to them, then they get rid of the gun, and just go into the wind. I mean, that was a real blow to the investigation by the way they approached that out there. But fortunately, i don't think these guys saw it on tv and we were able to stay quietly and look for them, you know, quietly. But you had a fear that your window to catch them was narrowing. After i saw that video with everybody, with their agency jackets, i thought, 'we're done.' these guys, if they have half a brain, they're going to be gone and the murder weapon is going to be gone.  And yet it wasn't."

Bouchard says the task force inner circle debated on whether to release what they knew - the names and vehicle ID. They decided to wait 12-24 hours, but another media leak beat them to it. Montgomery County States Attorney John McCarthy - then the legal adviser to the task force, says that leak put everything at risk.

"One of the things they feared was with the leak... " explained McCarthy, "...what if they got rid of the murder weapon? What if they had gotten rid of the car? What if they destroyed the computer? What if they threw away the walkie-talkies when they were ultimately arrested? The car was a treasure trove of all the information you needed to make this case. If you didn't have the gun that you could tie ballistically to these killings, where would you have been? If you didn't have the walkie-talkies, if you didn't have the car that had the cutout where the car trunk could pop up and you could put the right the muzzle of the weapon out the car on a bipod that would sit there like a sniper sitting in a nest ready to take a shot. What if you lost all that, trying to balance it out? You wanted to catch them, but you wanted to catch them in a situation where you would have evidence that you could actually convict them. And obviously, stopping the killings was foremost in it. But the way it went down, literally, once you saw what was in that car, that was a really solid case. It wasn't a tough case to make because the forensics so clearly tied them to the killings."

A truck driver spotted Muhammad and Malvo sleeping in their 1990 blue Chevy Caprice at a rest stop in Myersville, Maryland, about 50 miles north of Washington DC. He blocked the exit with his big rig, then called police.  Muhammad and Malvo were captured. It was the end of a three week period unlike any in the DC region's history.

"You know, the final night when we announced all these tying together, that was probably one of the most emotional days, " says Bouchard. "My job was to go out and say which shootings have been tied to this rifle and these two guys. But when we walked out... people were cheering, crying. A lot of the media - a lot of them were crying - and it was just like, you know, 'thank God this whole thing's over.'

McCarthy vividly remembers how everyone felt a weight had been lifted.  

"I remember that Halloween night, " he recalls.  "And the reason I remember, it just seemed like everyone who had been bottled up in their house, it's almost like a post-COVID kind of phenom. Everyone was in the street. I lived in a neighborhood, people were pulling their kids in the wagons, everyone was out in the streets, people were drinking wine, they were having a glass of beer. Everyone is partying the street, hanging out with their kids. It was just wonderful."

McCarthy says Muhammad and Malvo were taken to the task force office building - rather than Montgomery County Police headquarters - in order to try to keep it quiet. But people in the other offices got wind of what was going on, especially by about 3:00 pm when Muhammad was brought out for arraignment after questioning.

"You looked up everywhere you looked were faces of individuals. Everybody working in these buildings had come through the windows to watch this happen. They're applauding, they're screaming. They're banging on the windows, cheering them. The police and the law enforcement individuals who are taking the people out of there - really was it was very emotional -  it was almost like they were being let out of the coliseum and to these crowds of people that just were so relieved, because i think by then word is beginning to trickle out. Arrests have been made. The snipers are in custody. And the people that are in these buildings are putting two and two together and realize this is the guy. This is the guy that's terrified us for the last three weeks. And it was it was very cathartic for, I think,  for those people and very, very nice for them to be so supportive of the police."

McCarthy also reveals that Malvo tried to escape.

'"Malvo was handcuffed, but they handcuffed him to a chair leg. He was sitting at a table in a room that had a drop ceiling with ceiling tiles in it, and he was left alone for just a couple of minutes in the room because the interrogators were trying to get together a game plan for game planning," he tells us. "When they went back into to interview Malvo, Malvo was gone. He had gotten the handcuffs off of the chair, put the chair on the table, had climbed up into the roof through the ceiling tiles. He was gone. And so they they had to recapture him because he had escaped up into the ceiling."

Muhammad and Malvo's cases were tried in Virginia courts so they would be eligible for the death penalty. Part of the team defending the teenaged killer were two Northern Virginia defense attorneys, Thomas Walsh and Mark Petrovich. They spoke about the experience with FOX 5's Bob Barnard.

"The police had a goal to get a full confession and paint him his monster and then basically try to kill him. Our goal was to come in and create a relationship and try to save his life, " said Walsh. 

During the Virginia trial, the team presented an insanity defense, trying to convince the jury that Malvo was controlled by John Muhammad.  

Petrovich says it was clear to them that Malvo was operating under the influence of Muhammad. "He confessed to and claimed he was the shooter on all the shootings. And that was a directive by Muhammad. They decided that he would take the blame for all the shootings because it would be unlikely that they would seek the death penalty against a juvenile, whereas they would seek the death penalty against Muhammad.", explained Petrovich. " So that first statement was a big obstacle for us, and that was we were fighting that the whole time because he basically bared all and essentially admitted and took responsibility for all the shootings, which wasn't the case at all. We were trying to peel back the indoctrination and control that Muhammad had over Lee. It was very apparent".

John Muhammad was tried by Prince William County Virginia prosecutors for the murder of Dean Meyers, the 53-year-old Vietnam veteran and civil engineer who was shot and killed gassing up his car at a Sunoco station in Manassas on October 9, 2002.  

Muhammad was convicted in April 2005, sentenced to death and executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009. Malvo actually testified "against" Muhammad in the Maryland trials, more than three years after he’d been separated from the influence of his former father figure. This time, Malvo said he was the trigger man in only two of the shootings, and Muhammad did all the rest.  Malvo pleaded guilty to all of the charges in Maryland.  

FOX 5 sent anchor Tracey Neale and producer Terri Tolliver to re-trace the indoctrination of this teen. They traveled to Antigua, Jamaica and Seattle.

"It was really eye-opening to see his humble beginnings, we’re talking like a beach shack, where he and his mom were. It was beautiful but it wasn’t the touristy things that we see when you go to Antigua," Terri remembers.

"In Jamaica it was where we got a chance to really see how it was that Muhammad was able to really get control of Malvo. We set up an interview with his mom, and we went to Jamaica specifically to talk to her – she was in the country at the time, and once we got there, just.. she wanted hair and makeup, she wanted us to spend $5,000 dollars on a hotel resort for us to do the interview, she wanted a clothing budget, and you know, it really spoke to how she viewed her son. We were giving her the opportunity to tell people about him, to tell people that he wasn’t the monster that many people thought he was, and really she was all about herself. She was about money, about getting to America, materialistic things and she really didn’t have any connection to Malvo whatsoever."

In Washington State, Tolliver and Neale visited the YMCA and spoke to people who remembered the pair. "They said they could tell immediately that this was not really a great situation for Malvo. They would watch Muhammad kind of like, training him. He would make him run up and down this hill outside of the Y, and give him just a cup of applesauce for the day. Made him sleep on mats in the Y on the floor and then wake him up very early in the morning to do  weights and weight training." People told Tolliver that Malvo's personality would completely change when Muhammad was around, that he would just shut down.

They also visited neighbors who witnessed Malvo's sniper training in a back yard. "He would go over to this friend’s house, there was a stump in the backyard, that he would make Malvo practice shooting guns. And we spoke to that neighbor and she was like – 'the gun was bigger than he was!'  John Muhammad would be yelling at him, and if he didn’t hit certain targets she saw him throwing stuff at him."

Seeing that, Tolliver thinks "if someone would have just made maybe one phone call, stepped in at some point, we would not have gone through this three weeks."  

SEE MORE: Watch or listen to all episodes of "Three Weeks of Hell: The DC Snipers" Podcast

Some of the shooting victims testified at the trials, and even had to face questioning by John Muhammad when he, for a brief while, decided to represent himself.

FOX 5's Melanie Alnwick and Bob Barnard asked them what that was like.  In this final episode, you'll hear about that from Caroline Namrow, the doctor who was right next to Premkumar Walekar when he was one of the first shot at a gas station,  Iran Brown, the snipers' then teenaged victim, and Paul LaRuffa, the Clinton, Maryland restauranteur who was shot in September 2002, before anyone knew what was about to come. 

"It was just the juxtaposition of this nice-looking boy and yet, he could commit such horrendous crimes, was so shocking. It’s so shocking, " said Dr. Namrow.  "I mean, you think of somebody who’s evil. They look evil or like a monster and yet, here he is. This nice-looking kid. That was really horrific. I found that very mentally shocking. Like, here you are. You can look nice. You can be doodling. I could see him doodling on the pad that he had and you took all of these people’s lives. For what? For what? Destroyed these people’s lives. These families forever changed. That was really disturbing."

LaRuffa admitted that at one point, he felt such hatred for both snipers, but says he's in a better place emotionally now. 

"You know, people say, ‘Have you forgiven him?’ and I say 'yeah'."  He explains, "First you have to define forgiveness and the definition that I use for forgiveness is a definition that states, ‘forgiveness is the release of anger towards somebody who has done you harm.’ So, it’s something that I have released the anger because—as I said before—if I had spent the last 20 years being as angry as I was 20 years ago, then I let him ruin my life. So under that definition, sure. I have released the anger. I don’t feel the same towards Malvo that I did 20 years ago and I'm happy about that. I think that’s the way to be."

Today, LaRuffa is actually an advocate for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth - which works to end juvenile life without parole sentences.  25 states and the District of Columbia now ban life without parole for minors.  LaRjuffa believes these prisoners should at least have the opportunity *to ask for* release at some point in their lives.  

 In February 2020, ‘then’ Virginia governor Ralph Northam signed a law that allows prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, like Lee Malvo, to be eligible for parole after 20 years. Malvo’s first application for parole was submitted in August of 2022.  It was denied by the Virginia parole board.  

The US Supreme Court has also restricted the circumstances when a young person can be sent to jail for life.  Montgomery County States’ Attorney John McCarthy says Malvo’s case is always a sticking point when advocates want to go even further and eliminate kids being tried as adults.

"Mr. Malvo is part of a much larger debate about juvenile justice reform and how far you should go, because you always have that case to reflect upon. It's not an imaginary made up example. Here's a real concrete example, " McCarthy says.  "What if somebody what goes into a first grade class and kills 25 first graders with an automatic weapon at age 16, wipes out a first grade class? Are they going to stay as a juvenile? Are they going to go into a program in Maryland where maybe it lasts a year? At worst, they would be incarcerated till age 21 and then they're back in the community. And they killed 25 first graders or 22 people. You know, it's it's very interesting. historically, things have turned out pretty well for Malvo. He gets a review of his sentence in Virginia and he gets a review of a sentence in Maryland. These are sentences where he thought when he took them, he agreed it was never going to see the light of day again. He might now."

 Malvo’s trial lawyers Walsh and Petrovich don’t believe the now 37-year-old, serving his life sentence at Virginia's super-max Red Onion State Prison, will ever be released.  

"There's a lot of people out there that hope he won't. That's for sure. I hope that there's a chance of him getting out. I'm not sure that will ever happen, though, " says Petrovich. 

Walsh explains,  "He absolutely does have a conscience, for sure. And I think there's a lot of remorse. I don't think there's any question about that."

Malvo is suspected of murdering other people as well.  In Alabama... Louisiana... Arizona and California. If he were to ever be released from custody in Virginia or Maryland, he would have to face charges in those other states as well.  

Paul LaRuffa says he might be for some kind of parole for Malvo in 40 or 50 years, but not now.  

Others, whose lives were forever changed, aren’t sure they’ll ever accept that.  

"I don’t think he should ever be allowed out," says Dr. Caroline Namrow. "And I know that there are people who say, ‘well, he was very young and he was very influenced and I agree that he was very influenced. But unfortunately, I think he enjoyed what he did. I think he was proud of what he did and I know it’s hard to think that somebody that young should stay in prison, but look what he did. I really don’t think that he should be allowed out."

In retrospect, many feel if 15 year old Lee Boyd Malvo had never met John Muhammad that things would have been different.  For the last 20 years, defense attorney Mark Walsh has held this thought: 

"We all should take away - do the right things with your children and make sure that they get their basic needs met and make sure that they're raised the right way and they don't get into the hands of the wrong people." 

All episodes of "Three Weeks of Hell: The DC Snipers" are available to you. You can find episodes on FOX5DC.com in addition to YouTube, and wherever you get your podcasts including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeart, and TuneIn. You can also view an interactive timeline here.