A 13-year-old boy on his way to school. A young mother cleaning out her car. A landscaper mowing a garden lawn.
All randomly gunned down by the so-called DC Snipers during a 23-day reign of terror across the DC Metropolitan Area that left 10 dead and another three critically injured.
Between 2 October and 24 October 2022, 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad and his teenage accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo drove around Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia, shooting victims.
Their weapon of choice was a rifle. The method: firing bullets through a hole cut out of the trunk of their Chevy Caprice as they calmly drove by.
As perplexed investigators hunted for an unknown assailant or assailants who had no connection to any of the victims before they could claim more lives, the murderous duo taunted officers.
At one of the shooting scenes, the killers chillingly left behind a tarot card for police to find.
It was the “death card”. Scrawled across it was the phrase: “Call me God.”
“It was that feeling not so much is it going to stop but what’s next,” Montgomery Police detective Terry Ryan says in Netflix’s Catching Killers.
“I thought ‘oh boy this is going to be hell.””
Two decades on, the crime spree that terrorised the nation’s capital for more than three weeks is now the focus of an episode – titled Trained to Kill: The DC Sniper – in the third series of the Netflix series.
Here’s the true story behind the show:
23 days of terror
It all began on 2 October 2002 when James Martin, a 55-year-old program analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was shot dead in the parking lot of a grocery store in Wheaton, Maryland.
That night, police had no idea this would be the beginning of a three-week shooting spree and round-the-clock manhunt.
That reality set in the following morning.
On 3 October, Montgomery police were called to a Mobil gas station in Aspen Hill, Maryland, to a report that a man had been shot dead.
Det Ryan recalls in Catching Killers arriving to an unusual scene where a victim – part-time cab driver Premkumar Walekar – had been fatally shot while pumping gas, but no one seemed to know where the bullet had been fired from.
“No one sees anyone running or a person in a speeding vehicle,” he says. “There’s nothing to suggest what might have occurred.”
Things quickly took a turn.
Within minutes, calls of more shootings began coming in.
A woman, 34-year-old Sarah Ramos, had been shot dead as she sat on a bench at a shopping centre less than a mile away.
Mother-of-one Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was gunned down while vacuuming her car at a Shell gas station in Kensington.
Landscape gardener James Buchanan, 39, was fatally shot while mowing a lawn near Rockville.
By 10am that morning, there were five bodies.
And – even though there was people on the scene of several of the shootings – no witnesses were able to describe what had happened or who might have been responsible.
Over the next three weeks, residents of the metropolitan area were living in terror as eight more people were shot by the snipers in random shootings in DC, Maryland and Virginia.
Only three of them survived.
The only victim shot at night and the only one killed in DC, Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old father, was standing on a street corner in Northwest DC when he was killed. Dean Harold Meyers snad Kenneth Bridges were both killed at different gas stations in Virginia; Linda Franklin was shot dead in a Home Depot parking lot in Virginia; and bus driver Conrad Johnson was killed as he stood on the top step of his bus in Maryland.
The three survivors included Jeffrey Hopper; who was shot outside a DC steakhouse on a date with his wife; Caroline Seawell, who was wounded as she loaded shopping into her minivan; and 13-year-old Iran Brown.
Iran later testified at the shooters’ trial, revealing how his aunt had dropped him off at his school – Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland – on the morning of 7 October.
He had just got out of the car and was walking towards the building when he was shot in the chest.
It was this moment, says Det Ryan, that the police realised the snipers “wanted to take it to a new level – of shooting children”.
Catching the killers
For three weeks, the FBI and multiple police agencies tried to track down the killers – taking several wrong turns along the way.
For some time, investigators searched for a white box truck, after witnesses said they saw one at the scene of some of the shootings.
That detail was released to the public, tips poured in and trucks matching that description were stopped and searched. It turned out to be nothing more than a red herring.
At one point, the probe honed in on one man who was seen rifling through documents officials left on the podium at a press conference.
After he was taken in for questioning, the horrified man revealed he was nothing more than an overzealous member of the public who had become fascinated with the case.
Instead, it was the snipers themselves who prompted their own downfalls.
Mr Hopper’s wife – who witnessed the shooting – told investigators she believed the gunshots had come from the woods close to the restaurant. A subsequent search of the woods uncovered a note attached to a tree in a plastic bag.
It was from the killers.
“For you mr. Police… Call me god. Do not release to the press,” it read. Tarot cards with similar messages were also left at other crime scenes.
This latest note contained a list of demands from the killers including that officers deposit $10m into a Bank of America account.
It also claimed that the snipers had already reached out to police – an “officer Derek” – to try to begin negotiations.
This was the big break police were looking for.
Records revealed that a caller had claimed to be the sniper and had also claimed responsibility for shooting two women during a robbery at a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama, one month before the sniper spree began.
Police learned that there had indeed been such a shooting. And they also learned that the shooter had dropped a magazine as he fled the scene.
A fingerprint found on the magazine came back as a match for Malvo, a 17-year-old with ties to an older man by the name of John Allen Muhammad.
Investigators learned that Muhammad had served in the military, he owned a rifle, he was the subject of a restraining order from his ex-wife and he drove a blue Chevy Caprice.
In the early hours of 24 October, law enforcement tracked down the vehicle and arrested the two suspects.
Inside the car was the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle that had been used in each of the attacks.
Investigators also discovered how the vehicle had been modified so that the shooter could lie in a sniper position and take aim through the hole in the trunk.
Before killing 10, the pair are believed to have also killed seven other victims across other parts of the country.
At trial over the sniper spree, they were both convicted of capital murder.
Malvo was sentenced to life without parole in both Maryland and Virginia.
In February 2020, his sentences were commuted to life with the possibility of parole following a change in state law about life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
Muhammad meanwhile was sentenced to death and was executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia on 10 November 2009.
He refused to make any final words as the family members of his victims looked on, taking many answers – including what led him and his teenage accomplice to randomly gun down people going about their daily lives – to the grave.