Thirteen years ago today, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo began a series of shootings that would culminate with the Washington, D.C.-area sniper killings of October 2002. Their first victim was a then 21-year-old Keenya Cook, who survived a point blank gunshot to the head in Washington state in February 2002.
Livelihood before the killing spree
Muhammad served in the U.S. military from 1978 to 1994. With 17 years in service, he would have been three years shy of receiving an Army pension. As a civilian in the 1990s, Muhammad tried to make ends meet by starting a business, but the Washington Post called Muhammad “a serial loser” and “failed businessman whose karate school and car-repair business went bust.” He had hoped to teach karate to Muslim boys but there wasn’t enough demand.
In 1994, Muhammad began attending Nation of Islam meetings, and formally joined in 1997. The Nation of Islam Muhammad denied that Muhammad served as a paid security guard during the Million Man March in 1995, and said it ultimately “lost contact” with Muhammad in 1999.
Around that time, Muhammad traveled to Antigua, where he began making money by forging citizenship documents for Jamaicans at $3,000 per set. The buyers would use these forged documents to gain entry into the U.S. This is how Muhammad met Malvo, a Jamaican teen attempting to immigrate illegally into the U.S.
After shooting Keenya Cook, unemployed drifters Muhammad and Malvo left Washington on a cross-country odyssey until their main shooting spree in the fall. How did they pay for basic necessities and travel? The answer is probably through crime.
For example, Muhammad stole steaks from a grocery store in February. He and Malvo lived in homeless shelters. In March of that year, the pair stole a credit card from a Greyhound bus driver in Arizona. (Muhammad didn’t use this card for any expenses except for a $12 purchase at a gas station. But it was Muhammad’s intention to use this stolen account to receive a future ransom from authorities in exchange for stopping the October shootings.) In August, Malvo stole the wallet of one of their shooting victims in Louisiana. In September they robbed a liquor store in Alabama.
DC sniper attacks
Muhammad had larger ambitions than sleeping in cars and eating stolen food for the rest of his life. According to Malvo, Muhammad wanted to establish a terrorist training camp for orphans and homeless boys. Muhammad believed that he could blackmail the authorities to give him $10 million to stop his killing spree. With that $10 million, he and Malvo would flee to Canada and build their encampment there. Prosecutors discounted this theory, alleging instead that Muhammad mainly wanted to regain custody of his children from his ex-wife, but the judge found that motive implausible.
Here’s an excerpt from the $10 million ransom note Muhammad left for police in the middle of his killing spree:
While there is no evidence of foreign sponsorship behind the D.C. sniper’s attacks, it is worth noting that the Taliban came into existence by recruiting from orphanages and madrassas in Pakistan. Like them, Muhammad somehow got the idea that starting such a camp would be a goal worth killing for. Law enforcement said that Muhammad “modeled himself” after Osama Bin Laden.