- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Losing a family member in the sniper attacks last year was devastating for Vijay Walekar, but he says the worst part was not having a chance to say goodbye.

Mr. Walekar’s only brother, Premkumar, became the snipers’ third victim in the early hours of Oct. 3, fatally shot while refueling his cab at a gas station outside Rockville.

“It’s still hard to accept the fact that he’s not here anymore because it happened so sudden-like,” said Vijay Walekar, a 50-year-old Gaithersburg resident and father of four.

The random killings began a year ago today, at 6:04 p.m. when James D. Martin, 55, was shot outside the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton. In the ensuing three weeks, 13 persons would be shot, 10 fatally.

The victims and their surviving family and friends have largely been left to grieve in private, their stories overshadowed by the capture and pretrial proceedings of sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 42, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18.

Mr. Muhammad’s trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 14 in Virginia Beach. Mr. Malvo’s trial is set to begin Nov. 10 in Chesapeake, Va. The trials are expected to last four to six weeks and were moved because judges said Northern Virginian residents were too traumatized by the attacks to be fair and impartial jurors.

But last night, exactly one year after the snipers fired the first bullet, a stray one into the Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill, the attention refocused on the families and friends, who remembered the victims in a candlelight vigil at the Grove at 101 Monroe Street in downtown Rockville.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and other politicians helped plant a tree in memory of the victims and said more would be planted in a nearby park.

A plaque was also placed in the park. It read: “In Remembrance of the Victims of the 2002 Washington Area Sniper Shooting.”

“It’s hard every day and it seems like it gets harder, playing the role of mother and father,” said Denise Johnson, whose husband, Conrad, was killed Oct. 22 on the steps of the Ride On community bus he drove.

Mrs. Johnson was joined by about 250 others who attended the vigil and passed around a candle on the cool autumn night. Among those in the crowd was former Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who helped lead the sniper investigations.

“It’s still so fresh in the mind, like it happened yesterday,” Mr. Walekar said.

The vigil was preceded by a private dinner for the families held by Mr. Duncan. Many families have their own, more private gatherings planned in the next few days.

Victoria Snider is still finding poems that her brother, James L. “Sonny” Buchanan, wrote but kept to himself. He was the second victim, shot Oct. 3 morning, the first of four that day — all within two hours in Montgomery County.

“Remember none can take them away, you always have your dreams,” wrote Mr. Buchanan, 39, who was shot in the back while mowing grass next to Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Rockville.

Mrs. Snider, 43, has also poured through Mr. Buchanan’s voluminous belongings, reliving the life of a man who spent much of his time working on his father’s home in White Top, Va., and showing kids from the nearby Boys and Girls Club how to plant flowers.

Mrs. Snider still cannot believe that her brother was among those randomly shot.

“The thing is, how could it have been him, of all the people in this country?” she asked.

Mrs. Snider and her family also have started “Sonny’s Kids,” a nonprofit foundation that raises money for children in need.

Jacob Snider, Mrs. Snider’s 19-year-old son, was also very close to Mr. Buchanan, and he has since transferred from a college in South Carolina to the University of Maryland to be near his family and help run Sonny’s Kids.

The foundation has awarded $8,500 in scholarships, sponsored holiday parties for Boys and Girls Clubs, and is helping the Mark Twain secondary school start a General Educational Development program for at-risk students.

Ted Franklin, 30, was standing next to his wife Linda, 47, on Oct. 14 when she was fatally shot in the parking lot of the Home Depot in Falls Church. He has since attended every pretrial hearing for Mr. Malvo, who is charged with shooting her.

Mr. Franklin has declined to talk publicly about his wife’s death but is likely to attend every day of Mr. Malvo’s trial, too.

Other surviving family members, such as Nelson Rivera, whose wife, Lori Lewis Rivera, was killed Oct. 3, have also chosen to remain silent about their loss.

Some have moved on from the shooting, irrespective of whether they have spoken publicly about it.

Iran Brown, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, was shot outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie the morning of Oct. 7. One of his lungs and his intestinal tract were damaged. The doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in the District also had to remove Iran’s spleen, part of his stomach and pancreas, but he was able to leave the hospital little more than a month later.

Iran met first lady Laura Bush and his favorite pro basketball player, Tracy McGrady. He is now high school freshman, but after his very public recovery, the family has asked that Iran be allowed to grow up like a typical teenager.

The wife and son of Mr. Martin, the first victim, also have asked to be left alone, though a neighbor said yesterday that they were “recovering nicely.”

The neighbor also said that Mrs. Martin has returned to work, and that the family has received a lot of help from their church.

Jeff Hopper was shot outside a Ponderosa Steak House in Ashland, Va., Oct. 19 after he and his wife, Stephanie, stopped for dinner while traveling on Interstate 95.

“I’ve had so many good things happen since,” Mr. Hopper, 38, told an Orlando TV station in May. “There’s no anger, no hatred in my body for this person or these people.”

Mr. Hopper, a country music singer, said his guitar-playing is hampered by numbness in his fingers from several surgeries. He has scars on his vocal chords from where tubes were placed, and he wondered whether his voice will ever be the same.

Still, he recently landed a songwriting contract with a Nashville recording company, and he and his wife renewed their wedding vows in February. Mrs. Hooper was reached at the family home in Melbourne, Fla., but said the couple did not wish to talk about the shooting until after the trials.

On the day Mrs. Snider’s brother, Mr. Buchanan, was shot, he had planned to come by her Rockville home. They would have probably sat on her front porch and talked, like they usually did. It was not until 12:30 that afternoon that she saw the police officers at her front door.

Her parents traveled from southern Virginia to be at the memorial last night, bringing Mrs. Snider face to face with the most difficult part of her grief.

“The hardest thing is seeing other people’s pain, my parents and the kids,” she said. “And I feel horrible that no one was with him when he died.”

Reporters Matt Cella and S.A. Miller contributed to this article.

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