On October 8th, 2002 - the FBI designated the shootings in the DC area as a major case, giving the investigation the name "SNIPEMUR" - a blend of SNIPER and MURDER.
The official case file from that date reads: "During a six day period, from October 2nd through October 7th, eight people were randomly shot, resulting in six deaths and two critically wounded individuals."
What investigators didn't know then, is that a month earlier, the snipers had already struck.
Maryland restauranteur Paul LaRuffa was actually the first victim in the DC region.
"Yeah, it happened for me, and it happened really in this section of the country on September 5th of 2002", he recalls.
That night at 10:00pm, LaRuffa closed up his restauant, Margellina's, in Clinton, Maryland. He left with two other people and checked the parking lot, as he always did, to make sure it was safe. LaRuffa tells Fox 5's Melanie Alnwick that he got to his car, put his bank bag with the night's cash and receipts and his laptop in the back. Seconds after he got into the driver's seat - his world changed.
"Well, I shut the door and within several seconds, the window next to me exploded," LaRuffa said. "There was a big bang which deafened my left ear and the window exploded all over me. That was the first shot and then there were four more shots, and I was shot, which was just the most confusing, mentally confusing thing. I mean, you’d know what’s happening, but it’s just so crazy that you can’t comprehend it. But I knew it and I slumped over in the seat and I knew I was bleeding. But I was conscious and everything. You know, I knew what happened. It became very silent. The whole event took seconds—five seconds maybe to get off five shots."
The two men who left the restaurant with him had cell phones, and immediately called 911. One of them told the 911 operator he saw the person who shot LaRuffa.
CALLER: "A guy came out from behind the store and shot Paul LaRuffa and stole something... he’s bleeding in the front and back.
911: We are coming out there, ok? - can you describe the person who did this?
CALLER: "A young black guy... late teens I guess, slight, dark jacket with a hood, like a sweatshirt with a hood... "
In the background, Paul LaRuffa can be heard saying "hurry up, I'm having trouble breathing!" and "I'm not going to die here!"
It was assumed to be a random robbery and shooting. LaRuffa later learned that the money from his bank bag was used by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo to purchase the Chevy Caprice that the pair turned into a rolling snipers nest. After Muhammad and Malvo were captured, LaRuffa's Sony Vaio laptop was found in the vehicle. It had been used to plan all the shootings and document the results: skull and crossbones for kill shots, frowny faces for misses or survivors.
In our conversation with LaRuffa, he reveals the near misses he had with the snipers in the three days before he was shot. He also talked about the PTSD he went through - while still not connecting the dots between his shooting and the killings all around him.
"I was a wreck," he says. "I just had the flashbacks every night. Every night, I would jump out of bed and hear that shot. Just, I knew it was coming. It started the first night. I was conscious. After I woke up from operation, that night was the first time it happened and it was just shocking. It’s so real. It’s like a nightmare, but it’s ten times more real."
"I remember that that month of going through that from September 5th till October 23rd. You know month a half, two months. It was terrible."
Twenty years later, Paul LaRuffa has retired from the restaurant business. He enjoys his family and his horses, and remains grateful for every day.
"People say, ‘have you forgiven him?’" LaRuffa is talking about Malvo.
"And I say yeah. 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."
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.