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Residents remember D.C. sniper shootings 10 years later

Those who knew victims come together to honor them

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ten years after the Beltway snipers terrorized the D.C. area, residents said they can remember the collective fear felt each day another death was reported and the paranoia that accompanied the most mundane errands.

Goshen United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg hosted an evening prayer vigil Thursday to remember the 10 lives lost during October 2002, when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot people at random going about their daily business. Victims' Rights Foundation founder W. Gregory Wims is a church member, and Goshen United Methodist was where the first $1,000 was raised to help sniper victims.

As a crowd of about 100 gathered at dusk, holding candles, Mr. Wims said the point of Thursday's vigil was "to let the community know over the last 10 years we've never forgotten the victims and their families."

Mr. Wims said he knew victim James "Sonny" Buchanan from their time serving on the board for the Boys and Girls Club in Montgomery County. Buchanan, who was fatally shot while mowing lawn, was one of five people killed by the snipers on Oct. 3, 2002.

When Buchanan was killed, for the first time in the four-year history of the foundation, Mr. Wims said, "it became personal."

The family of sniper victim Premkumar Walekar, who was also shot and killed on Oct. 3, 2002, spoke to the crowd. Walekar was struck by a sniper's bullet as he gassed up his taxicab in Aspen Hill.

"My father is looking down from the heavens right now," said his son Andrew.

He said since his father's death, "people came up to us to share condolences ... even strangers. It shows how strong the community is."

Ken Columbia, a friend of sniper victim James Martin's, read a poem he wrote after finding out about the death of his friend. Martin was the first person fatally shot by the snipers, killed on Oct. 2, 2002, in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse near Wheaton. Mr. Columbia called his friend "more than a man of 55," the age Martin was when he died.

Families brought children too young to remember the terror, or not even born during the rampage. Former Montgomery County Public Schools Director of Safety and Security Ed Clarke remarked that the attacks immediately impacted the school district. One of the shooting victims, Iran Brown, then 13, was shot and injured on his way to class at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie.

Mr. Clarke said he came to the vigil to "pay my respects to the victims and remember the tragedy."

"Those victims didn't do anything wrong. They were doing everyday things," he said. "Sometimes the farther away you get from a tragedy, you can start to forget the impact on the lives of the victims and the impact on the entire community."

Earlier in the day, at a quiet section of Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, several visitors paused a moment at the permanent memorial for the victims to consider the years past.

"The whole time people's minds were on edge," said Ira Platt, a 79-year-old Rockville resident. "We were afraid to go different places. Every place you went outdoors, you looked around to see anybody you didn't recognize."

Mr. Platt has been volunteering at the 50-acre park in Wheaton for about eight years, but has spent most of his life in Montgomery County. During his volunteer hours, he sees field trips and family visits stop to study the granite rocks etched with the names of the victims or read the six sentences that explain the memorial.

"They read, they look at the names of people here," Mr. Platt said. "They were very innocent people [the victims]. Walking down streets, filling gas tanks, and boom, you're dead."

The rampage began on Sept. 5, 2002, when Malvo shot Paul LaRuffa, a businessman leaving his Clinton, Md., pizzeria. Mr. LaRuffa survived the attack but $3,500 and a laptop computer he had were stolen. The funds, it was later revealed, were used to purchase the Chevrolet Caprice from which the subsequent shootings took place.

The next month was punctuated by random attacks. On Oct. 2, 2002, Martin, a Silver Spring resident, was shot and killed.

Five people were shot and killed the next day. Buchanan, 39, was killed. Then Walekar, who was 54. Sarah Ramos, 34, was killed as she sat on a bench outside the Leisure World shopping center next to the post office in Silver Spring. Lori Lewis-Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring was fatally shot as she vacuumed her minivan at a Kensington gas station. And Pascal Charlot was fatally shot while running late-night errands at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road in Northwest D.C.

Rhonda Rodriguez, 45, a parent from Gaithersburg at the vigil, said that day "was just horrible. I had to walk out and take the kids to the bus stop, pump gas."

"No one should have to be in fear like that," she added. " I would not want to live that nightmare again."

On Oct. 4, 2002, the snipers shot and wounded Caroline Seawell in the parking lot of a Michaels craft store in Spotsylvania County — nearly 70 miles away from the first wave of attacks — as she loaded packages into her minivan.

Three days later on Oct. 7, Mr. Brown was shot and injured.

On Oct. 9, 2002, civil engineer Dean Harold Meyers of Gaithersburg was fatally shot as he pumped gas at a Manassas station.

On Oct. 11, 2002, Kenneth Bridges, 53, was fatally shot at an Exxon gas station in Fredericksburg. Three days later, 47-year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin was gunned down after she shopped at a Home Depot in Fairfax County.

Five days later, Jeffrey Hopper, was shot and injured in Ashland, Va., outside a Ponderosa restaurant.

The snipers' last victim, 35-year-old bus driver Conrad Johnson of Oxon Hill, was killed Oct. 22, 2002, as he stood on the steps of his bus.

At that point, investigators were closing in on Muhammad and Malvo.

Ballistics evidence from Tacoma, Wash., tips from former acquaintances and the snipers' increasing communications with authorities led police to identify the shooters.

The pair was arrested at a rest stop off Interstate 70 near Myersville, Md., on Oct. 24, 2002. They would be linked to nine other shootings in five states.

Muhammad was executed for his role in the crimes in 2009.

Malvo, a teenager at the time, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Leslie McDermott, spokeswoman for Brookside Gardens, said victims' families occasionally make their way to the reflection terrace, as do visitors to the park. On Thursday, several bouquets of flowers lay drying in the late-morning humidity at the foot of the 8-foot upright stone that bears the names of the victims.

Ms. McDermott said the atmosphere in the area changed when the pair were caught.

"You felt like you could go out and breathe again," she said. "You didn't feel like you had to duck and cover. You felt more safe."

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