20 years ago Sunday, the Beltway Snipers began the first day of their three-week-long string of shootings, terrorizing the Washington region while killing 10 people and injuring three others.
The public safety crisis began with a shot fired through a glass window at a Michael’s craft store in Aspen Hill, Maryland. No one was struck, but the shot barely missed a woman inside. Less than an hour later, 55-year-old James Martin became the snipers’ first victim when he was killed outside the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton, Maryland.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who was then a deputy state’s attorney, chanced upon the first killing and learned immediately that a sniper was believed to be behind Martin’s death.
“I was on my way to dinner. I noticed the constellation of police, sirens and lights and I went in to find out what was going on and was briefed that evening about what happened to Mr. Martin … that it appeared to be a sniper shooting, nobody saw anybody near Mr. Martin,” McCarthy said. “I was intimately involved in it, from the first instance, having almost basically stumbled on it.”
McCarthy would become legal adviser to the Sniper Task Force.
The next day, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo stepped up their killings, hitting four more people in Montgomery County and one in the District.
The snipers struck people who were shopping, getting gas, vacuuming their car and mowing the lawn. Because the victims were killed conducting simple, everyday tasks, many people hunkered down in their homes, curtailed children’s’ activities and put off shopping and pumping gas.
“If you lived here, in Montgomery County or in the region, you felt victimized … I cannot think of any other criminal event that has profoundly effected the way every one of us lived,” McCarthy said.
Fear washed over the region with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2001 mysterious mailings of deadly anthrax still fresh in the minds of Washingtonians.
Over the following weeks, the shootings would extend to a child outside his school in Bowie to people getting gas, shopping and dining out in Manassas, Fredericksburg, Falls Church and Ashland, Virginia.
The last victim, a bus driver, was killed in Aspen Hill on Oct. 22, 2002.
The snipers were captured two days later at a Frederick, Maryland, rest stop while asleep in their car. Muhammad was sentenced to death and executed in Virginia in 2009. Malvo is currently serving four life terms in Virginia.