In this episode of our true crime podcast series, we examine the meaning behind a growing stash of evidence being collected at the crime scenes that was left behind by the elusive snipers.
It was not just the bullet shell casings from their Bushmaster rifle. At the Bowie, MD shooting of 13-year-old Benjamin Tasker Middle School student Iran Brown, the snipers left behind a tarot death card with the words "Call me God" written on the back. It was their way of communicating with law-enforcement and taunting the frustrated police officials trying to stop the killing.
Retired ATF special agent Mike Bouchard tells us that notation on the card told them something about the killers.
"Early on the first weekend, we were doing our press conferences, and we were trying to figure out what the motive is," Bouchard explains. "So during our press conferences, we each had something different to say. My thing was, ‘I don't know why in God's earth somebody would do something like this.’ And we’d just weave statements in like that."
"And sure enough, after Iran Brown was shot, the tarot card said, 'Mr. Police, call me God.' Then we knew they were listening to everything we said. So that's where we knew that we have to communicate with these guys surreptitiously through our press conferences and try and draw them out and get them to engage with us," Bouchard said. "And the more we talked through the media with them, the more engaged they came with their notes and eventually, later on, phone calls."
Investigators and task force members were walking a wire. Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, tasked to be the public face of law-enforcement, needed to convey the seriousness of the situation and yet still try to keep the public calm.
As agent Bouchard indicated, they had a feeling the snipers might be listening to them. And then the snipers prove them right.
"I remember at the press conference where the question was asked to Chief Moose: are our children safe? And he indicated that your children were safe," said Montgomery County state’s attorney John McCarthy. He was the legal advisor to the sniper task force 20 years ago.
"[Chief Moose] said that at the press conference to calm the fears of individuals. And in response to that comment, the Tasker Middle School shooting took place because one of [the snipers’] goals was to maximize fear in the community. And if you were going to say that some segment of the community was safe, they took action to make sure that you knew that was not true," said McCarthy.
McCarthy says the task force was getting hundreds of tips a day, and over the course of the 3-week killing spree, identified a number of potential suspects.
"On given days, we might be trailing with teams of federal and local officials, sixteen or eighteen people. What generally ended the surveillance on those suspects would be another shooting" said McCarthy.
The snipers were also calling in. The case files show that sometime around Oct. 12, a subject claim to have called the FBI task force number on four occasions over the course of six days.
In one recording, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo could be heard telling the operator: "Look on the Tarot card. It says ‘Call Me God.’ Do Not Release to the Press. We have called you three times before, trying to set up negotiations. We’ve gotten no response. People have died."
When the call taker appears to blow him off, an audibly frustrated Malvo hangs up.
As anybody who was in the D.C. area at the time may remember, it was also the repeated notion that the snipers were driving a white box truck.
"We still continued to get: ‘I saw a white van. A white box truck,’" said retired federal investigator Mike Bouchard. "Okay. 'Did you see anything else?' the hotline operators would ask. ‘Well, I wasn't looking for anything else.'"
Bouchard says police were stuck with that kind of thing. And as everyone now knows, the white box truck was a bad lead.
If the lookout had been for a Chevy Caprice, there’s a chance Malvo and his killing partner John Allen Mohammed might’ve been caught sooner.
Going back to the FBI case files, many people had encountered the duo in their Caprice and raised suspicions. But they recalled the sightings to investigators only after the snipers had been publicly identified.
In this episode, we also speak to people about the fear everyone living in the D.C. area felt at the time.
"When you looked at the victims in the case," said Montgomery County state’s attorney John McCarthy, "there was no pattern to it. There were children. There were senior citizens. There were black, white, Hispanic men, women. Literally, it ran the gamut of people that lived in this very diverse community."
"And everyone seemed to be a target," McCarthy said. "And people were terrified for themselves, but they were particularly terrified for their children."
"It hit me in a way that no other random crime incidents ever had," Julie Saker Schlegel told us from her home in New Jersey. She lived in the D.C. area 20 years ago.
"I distinctly remember seeing on one of the news broadcasts back then and one of the police said ‘we’re suggesting that when you’re walking from the metro to your apartment or to the grocery store, don’t walk in a straight line. That makes you a predictable, easy to hit target. Zig zag back and forth so you’re less [of a target].’ And I’m like ‘this is the best advice you can give me, to walk in a zig zag?’ That's terrifying to me," said Schlegel.
"When I saw the title of your podcast I was shocked because three weeks? It didn’t feel like three weeks to me," said Schlegel. "It felt like months."
Sniper task force leader Bouchard told us he was scared, too.
"My biggest fear was they were going to shoot one of us during a press conference. We were deathly afraid of that standing out there. And we had snipers perched on buildings nearby, watching out, because we did think what better to take one of us out [than] on camera."
Episodes of "Three Weeks of Hell: The DC Snipers" come out on Wednesdays. 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.