Beltway Snipers

At 3:19 in the morning on October 24, 2002, to be exact—the FBI closed in on the snipers and their 1990 Chevy Caprice.

During the month, 10 people had been randomly gunned down and three critically injured while going about their everyday lives—mowing the lawn, pumping gas, shopping, reading a book. Among the victims was one of our own—FBI intelligence analyst Linda Franklin, who was felled by a single bullet while leaving a home improvement store in Virginia with her husband.

The massive investigation into the sniper attacks was led by the Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Department, headed by Chief Charles Moose, with the FBI and many other law enforcement agencies playing a supporting role. Chief Moose had specifically requested our help through a federal law on serial killings.

FBI evidence experts surveying a crime scene during the D.C. Beltway sniper case in October 2002. John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo used a hole in the trunk of their Chevy Caprice to shoot 10 victims.
FBI evidence experts survey a crime scene in the case

That morning, the hunt for the snipers quickly came to an end, when a team of Maryland State Police, Montgomery County SWAT officers, and agents from our Hostage Rescue Team arrested the sleeping John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo without a struggle.

Just a few hours earlier, at approximately 11:45 p.m., their dark blue 1990 Chevy Caprice—bearing the New Jersey license plate NDA-21Z, which had been widely publicized on the news only hours earlier—had been spotted at a rest stop parking lot off I-70 in Maryland (see photos right). Within the hour, law enforcement swarmed the scene, setting up a perimeter to check out any movements and make sure there’d be no escape.

What evidence experts from the FBI and other police forces found there was both revealing and shocking. The car had a hole cut in the trunk near the license plate (see photo below, left) so that shots could be fired from within the vehicle. It was, in effect, a rolling sniper’s nest.

Also found in the car were:

  • The Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle that had been used in each attack;
  • A rifle’s scope for taking aim and a tripod to steady the shots;
  • A backseat that had the sheet metal removed between the passenger compartment and the trunk, enabling the shooter to get into the trunk from inside the car;
  • The Chevy Caprice owner’s manual with—the FBI Laboratory later detected—written impressions of the one of the demand notes;
  • The digital voice recorder used by both Malvo and Muhammad to make extortion demands;
  • A laptop stolen from one of the victims containing maps of the shooting sites and getaway routes from some of the crime scenes; and
    Maps, walkie-talkies, and many more items.

Both Malvo and Muhammad were convicted at trial or pled guilty in multiple court cases in Maryland and Virginia. Both were sentenced to life without parole; Muhammad also received the death penalty in Virginia.  

Timeline of Terror

October 2:  Man killed while crossing a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland
October 3:  Five more murders, four in Maryland and one in D.C.
October 4:  Woman wounded while loading her van at Spotsylvania Mall
October 7:  13-year-old-boy wounded at a school in Bowie, Maryland
October 9:  Man murdered near Manassas, Virginia, while pumping gas
October 11:  Man shot dead near Fredericksburg, Virginia, while pumping gas
October 14:  FBI analyst Linda Franklin killed near Falls Church, Virginia
October 19:  Man wounded outside a steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia
October 22:  A bus driver, the final victim, killed in Aspen Hill, Maryland
October 24:  Muhammad and Malvo arrested in Maryland

Breaking the Case

It was just another fall evening in the nation’s capital—until a sniper’s bullet struck down a 55-year-old man in a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland. By 10 o’clock the next morning—October 3, 2002—four more people within a few miles of each other had been similarly murdered.

The attacks were soon linked, and a massive multi-agency investigation was launched, led by the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland.

Within days, the FBI alone had some 400 agents around the country working the case. We’d set up a toll-free number to collect tips from the public, with teams of new agents in training helping to work the hotline. Our evidence experts were asked to digitally map many of the evolving crime scenes, and our behavioral analysts helped prepare a profile of the shooter for investigators. We’d also set up a Joint Operations Center to help Montgomery County investigators run the case.

But the big break in the case came, ironically, from the snipers themselves.

On October 17, a caller claiming to be the sniper phoned in to say, in a bit of an investigative tease, that he was responsible for the murder of two women (actually, only one was killed) during the robbery of a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama, a month earlier.

Evidence from the D.C. Beltway sniper case, where John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo used a hole in the trunk of their Chevy Caprice to shoot victims in October 2002.
Hole in the trunk of the D.C. sniper's car used to shoot victims

That set in motion a chain of events that led to the capture of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo four days later, ending 23 days of random attacks in the Washington, D.C, area.

Here’s how the investigation played out:

  • Investigators soon learned that a crime similar to the one described in the call had indeed taken place—and that fingerprint and ballistic evidence were available from the case.
  • An agent from our office in Mobile gathered that evidence and quickly flew to Washington, D.C., arriving Monday evening, October 21. While ATF handled the ballistic evidence, we took the fingerprint evidence to the FBI Laboratory (then located at our Headquarters).
  • The following morning, our fingerprint database produced a match—a magazine dropped at the crime scene bore the fingerprints of Lee Boyd Malvo from a previous arrest in Washington State. We now had a suspect…
  • The arrest record provided another important lead, mentioning a man named John Allen Muhammad. One of our agents from Tacoma recognized the name from a tip called into that office on the case. A second suspect…
  • Our work with ATF agents revealed that Muhammad had a Bushmaster .223 rifle in his possession, a federal violation since he’d been served with a restraining order to stay away from his ex-wife. That enabled us to charge him with federal weapons violations. And with Malvo clearly connected, the FBI and ATF jointly obtained a federal material witness warrant for him. The legal papers were now in our hands…
  • Meanwhile, on October 22, we searched our criminal records database and found that Muhammad had registered a blue Chevy Caprice with the license plate of NDA-21Z in New Jersey. That description was given to the news media and shared far and wide, leading to the arrest of the two snipers.

That was the end of the attacks, but not our role in the case. We spent many more hours gathering evidence and preparing it for court—work that ultimately paid off in the convictions of both Malvo and Muhammad.