WASHINGTON – The call came when he was attending a conference in Chicago. His police chief wanted to talk to him.
Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan said that raised a red flag.
Chief Charles Moose didn’t typically call Duncan when the county executive was out of town — unless it was important.
It was Oct. 3, 2002 when Duncan received he call. He was told there had been one murder the night before and two more that morning.
Duncan immediately cut short his trip and raced back to a county in crisis.
“On my way back to the hotel, I got another call saying someone else had been murdered,” he recalls.
By the time Duncan got to the airport, there had been another shooting.
“The whole flight home I sort of prayed that no one else had been killed,” he says.
In less than 24 hours, five people had been killed in Montgomery County.
Oct. 2, 2002
James Martin, 55, was shot and killed in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse on Randolph Road in Wheaton.
Oct. 3, 2002
James “Sonny” Buchanan, 39, was shot while mowing the grass on Rockville Pike near the Fitzgerald Auto Mall.
Premkumar Wakelar, 54, was killed while pumping gas in Aspen Hill.
Sarah Ramos, 34, was killed at Rossmoor Boulevard at the shopping center in Leisure World in Silver Spring.
Lori Ann Lewis Rivera, 25, was killed while vacuuming her car at Connecticut and Knowles avenues in Kensington.
In 2002, Duncan says Montgomery County had 15 to 20 murders in a single year. He did not know it at the time, but the five shootings in early October were just the start of a deadly spree, and he was going home to deal with a crisis that would last for weeks.
It would be the sniper shootings that would thrust Duncan, the man often referred to as the “Mayor of Montgomery County,” into the glare of the national media.
Duncan, also Rockville’s former mayor, was known for what supporters saw as his hands-on style. Detractors portrayed him as a politician simply enjoying the spotlight.
The random violence that shattered the relative calm of one of the country’s most affluent communities would have police scrambling in dozens of directions at once.
The tension and fear grew rapidly.
A task force was formed. Maryland State Police, Howard County Police, the FBI, ATF, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals swarmed in to aid Montgomery County.
Daily debriefings became the norm.
Duncan says the criticism started rolling in almost immediately.
“The opinionating was just remarkable from people who had no clue what was going on,” Duncan says.
While Moose took the lead on the criminal investigation, Duncan found himself in the role of comforting a jittery community. He describes it as “three weeks of daily terror.”
During that time, Duncan was trying to run the day-to-day affairs of the county while attending the victims’ funerals and coordinating with other local leaders. When the snipers were arrested, the victims’ families were called together.
“We brought them together to give them a briefing before we said anything to the public,” Duncan says.
He recalls that when 35-year-old Conrad Johnson’s widow came in – Johnson was the last victim killed during the snipers’ spree – Duncan says all the victims’ families went to her and hugged her.
“There was a real camaraderie there between these families and the losses they suffered,” he says.
Duncan says the impact on the larger community did not fade for some time. Months after, he recalls visiting communities that had been most directly affected by the shootings.
“People would come up to me and thank me,” he recalls.
Duncan says people would tell him they felt comforted by the frequent updates given to the community.
“And then they’d just start sobbing, I mean six months later they’d just start sobbing, and that’s how people were affected by this.”
WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow Kate Ryan and WTOP on Twitter.