Unearthed: The secret behind America’s most terrifying killing spree. Seventeen innocents were seemingly slaughtered at random… but a major documentary series uncovers the real motive of the shootings that shocked the world 20 years ago
Jerry Taylor loved golf and so it was no surprise that one bright sunny afternoon in March 2002, he could be found practising his chip shots at his local course in Tucson, Arizona.
Unfortunately for the mild-mannered 60-year-old frozen food salesman, lurking in the desert surrounding the practice range was a man squinting through the sights of a high-powered rifle.
Poor Jerry didn’t stand a chance. The bullet hit him in the back and he died instantly.
His assailant dragged his body about 15 ft to hide it behind some mesquite bushes, went through his pockets to find his wallet and then, inexplicably, threw it away without removing the $15 it contained.
Taylor’s murder might have gone down in history as just another statistic in a country which records thousands of fatal shootings every year if it hadn’t later come to light that he was a victim of a psychopath who went on to gain infamy as the Washington Sniper.
Now Taylor’s story — and those of the sniper’s other 16 victims — is being told in an unforgettable new documentary series by Channel 4 to be screened tomorrow night.
17-year-old Lee Malvo (left) and former US soldier and Gulf War veteran John Allen Muhammad (right) shot 13 Washington residents indiscriminately during a rampage in October 2002
I, Sniper: The Washington Killers takes a forensic look behind the scenes at the murderous road trip taken by the sniper and his accomplice, which culminated in one of the most traumatic killing sprees in U.S. criminal history.
Their merciless rampage sparked a massive manhunt, paralysing Washington DC just over a year after 9/11, striking fear into the heart of every man, woman and child.
For more than three weeks in October 2002, warped Gulf war veteran John Muhammad and his teenage accomplice Lee Malvo cowed the American capital and its suburbs as they indiscriminately shot 13 residents with their Bushmaster rifle from the boot of their car.
The big-budget six-part series, more than four years in the making and including interviews with up to 300 people, reveals for the first time that the two men were gay lovers. The motivation for the killings was the older man’s obsession with getting revenge on his ex-wife for his defeat in a custody battle.
It is now nearly 20 years since the Washington snipers held America hostage. Muhammad, a black American, was executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009, at Greensville Correctional Centre in Virginia.
However, Malvo, now 36, is still serving multiple life sentences at the supermax prison Red Onion State, and he agreed to be interviewed at length for the series.
Both men came from dysfunctional families: Muhammad was raised by an aunt in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had been found clinging to the body of his mother after she died of cancer when he was three, while Malvo was abandoned by his Jamaican parents Leslie and Una on the Caribbean island of Antigua, where he scratched a living selling bootleg CDs.
A view of the hole cut into the trunk of the 1990 Chevy Caprice allegedly used in the 2002 sniper shootings
After joining the U.S. army, Muhammad rose to the rank of sergeant, but he also got involved in black nationalist organisation the Nation Of Islam and changed his surname from Williams to Muhammad. However, serving in the Gulf War changed him, according to his second wife, Mildred, the mother of his three children.
‘I believe something happened in Desert Storm,’ she tells the film-makers.
In 1999, after 14 years of marriage, the couple separated, driven apart by his aggressive behaviour and incessant womanising.
The following year, Muhammad kidnapped his three children, and fled to Antigua. It was only after he returned to the U.S. to live in Bellingham, a town in Washington state near the U.S. border with Canada, that the police caught up with him.
A subsequent court hearing on September 4, 2001 — in which Muhammad discovered Mildred had divorced him in his absence — granted his ex-wife full custody of their children and proved the catalyst for his murder spree.
Mildred attended court with their former accountant, Isa Nichols, who had become a close friend, and it was Isa’s niece who became the snipers’ first victim.
By now, Muhammad had recruited his partner in crime, Lee Malvo, then 15, whom he had met by chance in Antigua.
John Allen Muhammad pictured arriving for a pre-trial hearing at the Prince William Circuit Court in Manassas, Virginia, in November 2002
On Muhammad’s advice, Malvo read military and history books, and listened to speeches by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Muslim minister Malcolm X.
In time, the unlikely pair embarked on a sexual relationship. As Malvo told the film-makers: ‘I just said, you know: ‘I go that way.’ And he understood what I meant. Then he says: ‘I have the same inclination; I experimented in the military.’ I kissed him, and that’s how it started.’
Given that Malvo was under the age of consent, however, Muhammad’s actions amounted to statutory rape.
The older man — who had earned his Expert Rifleman’s Badge in the army — began training his protege to become a sniper, taking him to a shooting range, and working out with him at the YMCA to get him into peak physical shape.
Malvo’s mother, Una, had not given up on him, however, and she arrived in Washington two months later in search of her son.
The teenager was apprehended by Border Patrol at the YMCA and, before returning him to his mother’s custody, immigration officers took his fingerprints and entered them into their database. It was these prints which would ultimately lead to his downfall.
But Mrs Malvo failed to hold on to her son for long. He was soon reunited with Muhammad and at 7pm, on February 16, 2002, they claimed their first victim.
Malvo, now 36, is still serving multiple life sentences at the supermax prison Red Onion State, and he agreed to be interviewed at length for the series
Isa Nichols’s niece, Keenya, a 21-year-old mother of one, who lived with her aunt in Tacoma, Washington, was shot at point-blank range as she opened their front door.
At first, neither the police — nor Nichols — connected the murder to her friendship with Muhammad’s ex-wife and they had no reason to believe it marked the start of vicious cycle of random violence in which a total of 17 people would be shot dead and six wounded.
Malvo knew the die was cast. ‘That was just the beginning,’ he reveals dispassionately in the documentary. ‘And once that ball starts rolling down the mountain, there’s no stopping it.’
According to Malvo, the idea was to commit so many random killings that when Muhammad got round to targeting his ex-wife, no one would link him to her murder.
But it was their alienation from a society that both felt had failed them that fuelled their mercilessness. They resented their poverty, were embittered by the racism they had encountered, and abhorred the police.
‘He [Muhammad] really hated the country,’ says Malvo. ‘It was a calculated, unremitting rage. Hatred does not begin to describe what he felt. He blamed the white man, the system for everything. He wanted to terrorise the nation.’
That summer, the two shooters bought a blue Chevrolet Caprice, removing the back rest so that Malvo could hide in the boot, and cutting a hole in the boot through which to fire the rifle they had stolen from the Bull’s Eye Shooting Range in Tacoma, Washington.
The Bushmaster XM-15, the civilian form of the M-16 military assault rifle, is shown in this undated handout photo
Over the next few months, the snipers travelled around the country killing and wounding random strangers. But, on September 21, they made their first mistake. After firing at two women walking to their cars from Krystal’s off-licence in Montgomery, Alabama, they fled the scene — but Malvo had left behind vital evidence.
‘It turned out to be the owner’s manual for the Bushmaster rifle,’ says Montgomery detective Mike Myrick. ‘It had 36 fingerprints of identifiable quality. The fingerprints were run through the entire country, it did not strike anyone. It was very frustrating.’
Eleven days later, on October 2, the snipers arrived in the capital, beginning their reign of terror in suburban Montgomery County on the edge of Washington DC.
After a ‘trial run’ that evening, in which they killed a man outside a food store, they went to bed.
And, on October 3, in less than 24 hours, Muhammad and Malvo left five dead and a city on full alert. It was after they’d killed their fifth victim of the day, 72-year-old Pascal Charlot, who was shot while standing in the street, that the police missed their first real opportunity to catch the snipers.
Early accounts from eyewitnesses included descriptions of a white delivery truck, with dark lettering, speeding away from the scene. So, when a witness described a different vehicle — a dark-coloured Chevy Caprice — they failed to follow up on the tip.
They shot and wounded another woman on October 4. But it was their next attack that ramped up fears across the nation — the shooting of schoolboy Iran Brown, on October 7, as he walked into Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland. ‘When you involve innocent children in a wave of homicide shootings, you’ve crossed a line,’ says Ed Clarke, head of security at Montgomery County Schools.
‘I think it was a cold and calculated message to say: ‘You haven’t been able to stop us and now we are going after children.’
Incredibly, the 13-year-old survived, despite having a hole in his stomach, a shattered spleen and an injured pancreas, and liver.
But the killers were becoming complacent, leaving a shell casing at the scene and taunting the police with a Tarot death card.
In the following days, police missed two opportunities to halt the rampage. At 3am on October 8, Baltimore officer Jim Snyder stopped the killers in a parking lot, confirmed Muhammad’s driving licence and wrote down the car registration number, but had no grounds on which to detain them.
And, at 8.10pm the next day, rookie cop Steve Bailey questioned Muhammad again at a fuel station in Manassas, Virginia, where war veteran Dean Meyers, 53, had been murdered, but let him go.
‘We were looking for a white van with ladder racks, driven by a white male who’d already left the scene,’ says Bailey. ‘So, I didn’t write down any of his information. I asked him to drive safely. You just feel like you let the families down. We had them and — my mistake — I felt like I let them go.’
Eight days later, there was yet another chance to apprehend the suspects after Robert Holmes, an army buddy of Muhammad’s, called the FBI and told them he thought his friend was the sniper.
Muhammad and Malvo had visited his home in Tacoma and undertaken some target practice in his back yard. But the FBI took five days to interview him.
Meanwhile, the snipers were playing cat and mouse with investigators, phoning them to taunt them about the investigation, demanding $10 million in return for stopping the killings, and leaving notes for their pursuers.
Finally, on October 23, the police operation made a breakthrough.
During one call to the police, Malvo — in order to prove he was one of the snipers — tipped them off about the shooting of the two women at Krystal’s off-licence, not realising that they had his fingerprint-laden gun manual.
After matching the ballistics from the Washington shootings to the Alabama attack, the police ran the fingerprints against the immigration database and came up with a match. ‘That’s when we started to piece things together,’ explains U.S. Marshals Service chief of investigative operations, William Sorukas.
‘I saw references within that record to John Allen Muhammad . . . And in one of those reports, Lee Malvo was referenced as Muhammad’s son.’
The FBI also finally interviewed Robert Holmes at his home and removed a tree stump from the yard for forensic tests.
FBI special agent Todd Bakken recalls: ‘The DC sniper taskforce were trying to dig up as much information they could about John Muhammad. I heard the name and I said: ‘Hey I received a call the other day regarding that, on the tip line, from Robert Holmes.’
‘It became very urgent that we contact him, so I called Mr Holmes into the office, and from that point on, things went at 100 miles an hour.’
At 11.45pm that day, Montgomery Police Chief Charles Moose drew up an arrest warrant for Malvo and Muhammad, and issued a nationwide alert for a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, with New Jersey licence plate NDA-21Z.
At 1am, supermarket refrigeration mechanic Whitney Donahue spotted the car in a parking lot in Frederick County, 50 miles from Washington DC, and dialled 911.
Two Swat team commanders immediately flew in by helicopter to co-ordinate the arrest. Their teams gingerly approached the car, taking advantage of what cover they could in the surrounding wood, all the time conscious that, if they were spotted, a shootout was inevitable.
As it happened, Muhammad and Malvo were sound asleep and were dragged out of the car without a fight, their arrest timed at 3.19am.
The news that the men had been apprehended sparked jubilation in Washington: a city that had lived in fear for so long could finally breathe again.
n I, Sniper: The Washington Killers starts on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight.