The Beltway Sniper

The term “Beltway Sniper” refers to the perpetrator (later identified as a duo) of a series of firearm attacks that rocked the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and its surroundings for three weeks in October 2002. These carefully planned and coordinated attacks resulted in the deaths of ten people and severe injuries to three others, occurring in seemingly unrelated locations.

Initially, the assailant was suspected to be a lone sniper, described as a white male with a military background, who moved along Interstate 495 (known as the Capital Beltway), likely in a white van or truck. However, it later emerged that behind these attacks was a duo: John Allen Muhammad, an African American man, and Lee Boyd Malvo, a seventeen-year-old boy from Jamaica. They used a blue sedan, a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, and it appears they began their crime spree as early as February 2002, with murders and robberies in various states across the United States.

These additional crimes resulted in the deaths of seven people and injuries to many others, bringing the total toll to seventeen deaths and ten injuries, scattered across different states including Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, Virginia, Washington state, and Washington D.C.

First Attacks

The Beltway Sniper’s first attacks began on February 16, 2002, when Keenya Cook was tragically killed by a gunshot while on the doorstep of her home in Tacoma, Washington. This event marked the beginning of a series of violent crimes perpetrated in various locations across the United States.

Subsequent victims included John Gaeta, who on August 1, 2002, was changing a tire at a rest stop when he was shot in the neck by a bullet fired by Malvo. Fortunately, Gaeta managed to survive by feigning death when Malvo approached to steal his wallet. His prompt reaction and escape to a gas station allowed him to receive life-saving medical treatment. Years later, in March 2010, Gaeta received a letter of apology from Malvo.

On September 5, 2002, Paul LaRuffa, a pizzeria owner, was targeted by six shots fired at close range while closing his establishment. Despite serious injuries, he managed to survive, and his laptop was later found in John Allen Muhammad’s car at the time of their arrest.

On September 21, 2002, Million Woldemariam was shot to death with a .22 caliber rifle while assisting a shopkeeper in closing his store in Atlanta, Georgia. Nineteen hours later, Claudine Parker, a clerk in a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama, was killed during an armed robbery, while her colleague Kellie Adams was injured. These seemingly unrelated events provided investigators with crucial evidence that later led them to identify Muhammad and Malvo as the prime suspects, although the connection between the two crimes was not immediately clear until October 17.

On September 23, 2002, Hong Im Ballenger was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a weapon later linked to the Muhammad-Malvo criminal duo.

The Victims

Here is the chronological list of identified victims of the Beltway Sniper:

Keenya Cook (21 years old) – Killed on February 16, 2002, in Tacoma, Washington.
Jerry Ray Taylor (60 years old) – Killed on March 19, 2002, in Tucson, Arizona.
Billy Gene Dillon (37 years old) – Killed on May 27, 2002, in Denton, Texas.
John Gaeta (52 years old) – Survived on August 1, 2002, in Hammond, Louisiana.
Paul LaRuffa (55 years old) – Survived on September 5, 2002, in Clinton, Maryland.
Rupinder Oberoi (22 years old) – Survived on September 14, 2002, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Muhammad Rashid (32 years old) – Survived on September 15, 2002, in Brandywine, Maryland.
Million Woldemariam (41 years old) – Killed on September 21, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Claudine Parker (52 years old) – Killed on September 21, 2002, in Montgomery, Alabama.
Kellie Adams (24 years old) – Survived on September 21, 2002, in Montgomery, Alabama.
Hong Im Ballenger (45 years old) – Killed on September 23, 2002, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Wright Williams, Jr. (55 years old) – Survived on September 26, 2002, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
This list does not include two other victims whose identification was not possible. One man was killed during a robbery in Los Angeles in February or March 2002, and another man, 76 years old, from Arizona (Tucson), was shot on May 18, 2002, on a golf course in Clearwater, Florida, but survived.


The investigations into the Beltway Sniper case involved various agencies and police departments, coordinated by the Montgomery County Police Department, under the leadership of Charles Moose. The ATF, FBI, CIA, and Virginia Department of Transportation contributed to the investigations, along with local police departments.

During the three weeks of attacks, the police response was swift and thorough. Roads and highways in the vicinity were cordoned off, traffic was directed through checkpoints, and officers combed the crime scenes, collecting testimonies and reviewing surveillance camera footage.

On October 4, forensic police confirmed that the bullets fired on October 2 and 3 came from the same weapon.

Testimonies collected from the attacks were often confused, and the phone lines and email inbox set up for reports became overwhelmed.

The initial reports mentioned a white truck with dark markings on the sides, while a gray car was seen speeding away after an assault.

The sniper attempted to engage the police in dialogue by sending cryptic messages through the media. In addition to tarot cards, long threatening letters were found.

A call from the sniper from a public payphone was traced, but the agents failed to capture him.

On October 17, authorities confirmed that fingerprints found at the crime scenes matched those of Muhammad.

Despite difficulties in the investigations, authorities made significant progress. They discovered that Muhammad’s ex-wife lived near the Beltway and obtained information about a vehicle linked to the attacks.

Although they had stopped the dark blue Chevrolet Caprice involved in the attacks, the agents did not further interrogate the driver, and the vehicle was not thoroughly examined.

Authorities issued a press release seeking the blue Chevrolet Caprice sedan, marking a breakthrough in the investigations. It was later discovered that Muhammad’s Caprice had been used as an undercover police car.

The Arrest

October 24, 2002, marked the definitive turning point in the Beltway Sniper case when Muhammad and Malvo were caught sleeping in the Chevrolet at a rest area along Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland, and immediately arrested for federal crimes related to the use and possession of weapons.

Whitney Donahue was the person who alerted the police after noticing the car parked with the two men inside.

Four hours before the arrest, Charles Moose had sent a message to the sniper: “You have asked us to do and say certain things. You asked us to say, ‘We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.’ We understand that hearing us say this is important to you.” Moose asked the media to repeat the message word for word and often. This mysterious reference, presumably to a Cherokee tale, was never explained.

Maryland State Police trooper D. Wayne Smith was the first to arrive at the scene and used his unmarked police car (blue without markings) to block the escape route, positioning the car across from two parked tractor-trailers.

As other agents arrived on the scene, the rest area was effectively isolated, blocking both entrance and exit ramps, without the suspects noticing the increasingly massive police presence.

Shortly after, when truck driver Ron Lantz attempted to leave the rest area, the agents commandeered his tractor-trailer and used it instead of police cars to complete the exit blockage. With the escape route definitively closed, the agents could finally proceed to arrest the suspects.

Inside Muhammad’s car, a bag containing a Bushmaster .22 caliber rifle and a tripod was found. Subsequent ballistic tests confirmed that this was the weapon used in at least eleven of the attacks, including the one that caused no injuries.

Muhammad was sentenced to death in September 2003 and executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009, at the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Virginia. Malvo, on the other hand, was sentenced to six life terms without the possibility of parole.

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