Sunday, October 11, 2009

Glass shards exploded from the car window as bullets tore through the side of Paul LaRuffa’s 1999 Chrysler 300M.

Blood poured from wounds in his chest, arm and back, soaking the driver’s seat of the dark green vehicle. Mr. LaRuffa was ambushed as he got into his car while leaving his Clinton, Md., pizzeria on the evening of Sept. 5, 2002.

The then-55-year-old was shot five times with a .22-caliber handgun and was desperately trying with his hands to stop the blood from oozing out of his chest. The bullets punctured both lungs, which were quickly collapsing, and damaged nerves in his left arm.

The attack that happened seven years ago was a prelude to the D.C. sniper rampage, in which 10 people in Maryland, Virginia and the District would randomly be killed and others injured by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo at grocery stores, gas stations and other public places.

Muhammad is scheduled to die Nov. 10 for his role in the crimes. In September, Gov. Tim Kaine said he didn’t see any reason to stop the execution. Jon Sheldon, Muhammad’s lawyer, said his team plans to file a compelling request for clemency with the governor by Oct. 15.

Malvo, who was a teenager during the attacks, will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Muhammad and Malvo, who pulled the trigger that night, stole $3,500 from Mr. LaRuffa and his laptop computer. The robbery bankrolled the attacks that terrorized the area for more than three weeks. It was later revealed that Muhammad used the money to buy the Chevrolet Caprice that the pair outfitted as a sniper nest.

Mr. LaRuffa’s Sony Vaio computer would be recovered with a map of the region, with the shooting sites marked with skulls and crossbones and locations of planned further killings as far away as Raleigh, N.C. Mr. LaRuffa never got the computer back, although he thinks one day he might ask the FBI — or whoever has it — to return it.

The “lucky green car” still sits in Mr. LaRuffa’s garage and serves as a reminder of the attack that forever changed his life. The pizzeria has since been sold, and it has gone out of business. The scars have healed over, but the memory of the shooting has far from faded.

He was confronted by a boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a T-shirt that read, “I only have to be nice to one person a day. Today’s not your day.”

Then the shots.

“Did I feel each shot? I heard them all, but I can’t tell you. The worst I felt was something hitting me,” he said. “One second you’re sitting there, and a millisecond later there’s blood pouring out of your body.”

His friend placed an emotional 911 call. In the background, Mr. LaRuffa screams that he doesn’t want to die.

The last memory he has of that day was being rushed to the emergency room and watching fluorescent hallway lights flash by overhead. A nurse shoved a breathing tube down his throat and injected him full of a paralyzing drug to prepare him for surgery.

“It was the worst feeling of my life,” he said. “I was mentally awake but could not even move an eyelash. I was trying, and it was just a tortuous feeling.”

Bullet fragments remain to this day in his body near his spine and chest. A surgical scar runs from his chest to his navel — a constant reminder of what happened seven years ago.

He has met with victims’ families and spoken with fellow survivors, including Iran Brown, then 13 years old, shot on Oct. 7, 2002, on his way to class at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie. The two had met at an awards ceremony in Maryland years ago.

“He didn’t say hi,” Mr. LaRuffa said as tears streamed down his cheeks. “He just asked me if the dreams had stopped. I knew exactly what he meant. I told him they go away, eventually.”


Charles-Auguste Charlot was in France enjoying dinner with friends when a relative called to say his cousin, Pascal, had been fatally shot while running late-night errands on Oct. 3. He was targeted at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road in Northwest D.C.

Pascal was the fifth person fatally shot that day — each of them felled with a single bullet from a high-powered rifle. The four others were killed between 7:41 a.m. and 9:58 a.m. in broad daylight as the shooters traveled on county roadways.

It would be another day before police linked the sniper spree to Mr. Charlot — the District’s only victim during the rampage that ended nearly a month later on Oct. 24.

Mr. Charlot said his cousin went out late because his wife needed medicine.

“If he went in the morning, he would not have been shot,” Mr. Charlot said, visibly upset as he recalled his cousin. “He is gone. We can’t bring him back. I miss my cousin. I miss him very much.”

The 73-year-old said his family visits Pascal Charlot’s grave on birthdays and holidays to pay their respects to the retired carpenter and place a flower at his headstone.

“My cousin was a funny man,” Mr. Charlot said. “He said the day he died he would have a big funeral. People I did not know, people from the government came to his funeral to cry.”

Mr. Charlot said he forgave the snipers for his cousin’s killing. He doesn’t dwell on how his cousin was killed, only that he’s gone.

“He used to call me Preacher,” he says, smiling about the affectionate nickname he earned for dispensing advice to his cousin. “Nobody calls me that anymore.”

Not much has changed in seven years at the locations where Malvo and Muhammad stalked their victims.

James Martin, 55, of Silver Spring was the first person fatally shot in Muhammad and Malvo’s sniper rampage. The killing occurred in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse near Wheaton on Oct. 2.

On a recent sunny day, the parking lot was filled with cars and customers pushing full carts and carrying grocery bags. People hurried to the bus stop and walked along the sidewalks.

Behind the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Rockville, a small memorial for James “Sonny” Buchanan, 39, stands among assorted purple flowers and tall grasses. Mr. Buchanan, a landscaper, was killed while mowing the grass. The memorial is engraved with a poem Mr. Buchanan wrote years ago about dreams.

“Remember none can take them away, you always have your dreams,” Mr. Buchanan wrote in 1994.

Motorists still fill their gas tanks at the same pumps where Premkumar Walekar, 54, fell after he was struck by a sniper’s bullet as he gassed up his taxicab. The then-Mobil station in Aspen Hill is now a Sunoco.

Up the street at the Leisure World shopping center next to the post office in Silver Spring, a woman chatted on a cell phone as she sat on the green bench where Sarah Ramos, 34, was killed. An eye doctor has set up shop in the storefront where a GNC vitamin supplement store had its window shot out during the attack.

Lori Lewis-Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring was fatally shot as she vacuumed her minivan at a Kensington gas station, the fourth victim of that violent day.

The memory of the frightful morning remains with those who lived through it. At virtually every shooting scene, an employee of a nearby business or a passer-by will volunteer an anecdote of their own experience.

Many simply say: “Yep, that’s the spot.”


A day after the Oct. 3 spree, the snipers struck again. Nearly 70 miles away from the first wave of attacks, Caroline Seawell was wounded in the parking lot of a Michaels craft store in Spotsylvania County as she loaded packages into her minivan.

On Oct. 7, Iran Brown was hit in Prince George’s County — days after Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose assured area residents, “Your children are safe.” In one of the enduring images of the crisis, the chief was brought to tears during a nationally televised press conference in the wake of the shooting.

An eerie message — a tarot card with the image of death and the phrase, “Call me God” — was left at the scene. It was the beginning of a series of communications that would ultimately equip authorities with some of the clues they would need to identify the snipers.

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

It was that killing in Prince William County for which Muhammad was found guilty and faces execution. Robert Meyers, Dean’s brother, says Muhammad’s death will bring well-deserved justice.

“This man perpetrated upon many families some horrific events, and he has been properly tried,” said Mr. Meyers, who lives in Perkiomenville, Pa. “At this point, it has to do with the debt to society and the requirement for this to take place based upon the law and the process through which that happened.”

He plans to make the trip to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrat, Va., to witness Muhammad’s execution.

“I really don’t take good satisfaction out of another life being lost, but I do believe there is an appropriateness based upon everything that I just mentioned.”

The killings continued.

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.

The snipers suspended their attacks for five days before a shooting in Ashland, Va., outside a Ponderosa restaurant.

Jeffrey Hopper, the 12th victim, was shot while leaving dinner with his wife, Stephanie. The Melbourne, Fla., residents were returning home from a visit with family in Pennsylvania.

The two had intentionally filled the gas tank before reaching the D.C. area so they would not have to stop and become a “potential target.”

“When I was shot, I felt as if I had an unusual type of stomach ache,” Mr. Hopper said. “It was a dull, queasy feeling, not a sharp pain.”

He lost about 70 percent of his stomach, part of his pancreas and spleen and his liver, kidney, lung and rib were damaged. He has since recovered from his extensive injuries. However, he and his wife joke about how they no longer go to buffets because, “Jeff does not have the stomach for them.”

As Mrs. Hopper waited in the hospital for her husband to recover, a local church sent her a care basket with fruit, a toothbrush, toothpaste and other “simple comforts.”

She now makes “trauma bags” with similar items for the local trauma center so that others may be comforted during tough times.

On Oct. 22, 35-year-old bus driver Conrad Johnson of Oxon Hill became the sniper’s final victim early that morning as he stood on the steps of his bus.

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 of Interstate 70 near Myersville, Md., on Oct. 24, 2002. They would be linked to nine other shootings in five states.

Next month’s execution will mark a point of closure for some victims and their families while others say they’ve forgiven Malvo and Muhammad for their actions long ago.

Mr. Charlot and Mr. LaRuffa say they won’t attend.

“It’s never over,” Mr. LaRuffa said. “But you have little points, if by closure they mean little points along the way when you get by roadblocks and you feel better. Nothing’s ever closure, it changes your life. It never really goes away.”

Mr. Meyers agreed.

“This is a closure point,” Mr. Meyers said. “I don’t know that full closure is reality ever in situations like this, but it is a point of closure. It would seem disloyal to [Dean] to not be a part of the closing steps with respect to his perpetrator.”

For Mr. Hopper, closure came while he was still in the hospital.

“I truly believe that Lee Malvo, the person who shot me, was Mr. Muhammad’s first victim in this unconscionable and vicious crime spree,” he said. “I am thankful in time Mr. Malvo came to realize his actions, under the influence of Mr. Muhammad, were ethically and morally wrong. … Mr. Malvo: I’m sorry that Mr. Muhammad sacrificed your life as well as the lives of so many others. For what it’s worth, your openness did mean something to me.”

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