You call this a sniper?
As the death toll mounted and tensions rose throughout DC and the suburbs, people took unusual precautions – zigzagging through parking lots, keys in hand; going inside while the gas tank filled or hiding behind the pumps.
I couldn’t help but think we weren’t helping things with the hype – “Beltway Sniper” was a misnomer. A true sniper wouldn’t have left so many people alive. To me this seemed like an amateur – though later it would make sense that shooting out of a hole in a trunk isn’t the most optimal way to get a good sight.
October 3, 2002. Four murders in two hours in suburban Montgomery County. No robberies. No survivors. Parents lined up in their cars at some schools to get their children home early – other schools asked parents not to come and stayed locked down. Lessons learned just a year before during the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Or were they?
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but in our little, mostly empty newsroom below the railroad tracks off Parklawn Drive we contemplated who would go where, interview which shattered family.
One family spoke through the chain-bolt on their suburban front door. “We have nothing to say.”
The family of cab driver Premkumar Walekar was kind, even concerned for my well-being as they grieved, answered questions and cared for his family.
It was nerve-wracking, though for the most part I tried not to think too much about risks of sitting still at red lights or passing white box trucks on the road – it would be several days before they changed their focus to a blue police-surplus Chevy Caprice.
After 12 long hours and devoting practically our whole issue to the shootings, and with 45 minutes to our press deadline, our rookie city editor at the Journal newspapers where I worked asked us to go see if we could get any last man-on-the-street quotes on our way home – call them in.
I stopped in an apartment complex off Randolph Road and watched. That guy was walking too fast. She probably doesn’t speak too much English. This lady is already scared, I’d just spook her approaching in the gathering dusk. I came up with a half-dozen excuses before calling in that nobody was willing to talk.
I’d done enough, or could never do enough. I don’t know, but walking around an open parking lot near the Beltway, wondering who would be the next victim was not the way I’d imagined spending the rest of my sunlight hours.
It didn’t help that there was another victim just after I arrived home. The hunters had been out there while I came up with excuses for not getting out of my car.
The rest of the case, the capture, the relief, the trial and ultimately Muhammad’s execution, are recorded in history. What wasn’t was Muhammad’s brother contacting me a few years later when I began working for the Baltimore Examiner trying to get me to write about the “sniper” and how he wasn’t crazy.
If I could dig up those letters, that would make good reading for anybody who, like me, enjoys collecting the green-ink letters from random wack-jobs.