Investigator Reflects Decade After D.C. Sniper Attacks
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Ten years ago this week, the Washington, D.C., area was in the grip of terror. On Wednesday, October 2nd, in Wheaton, Maryland, a man was shot and killed in a grocery store parking lot.
The next day, five more people were shot dead - at 7:41 in the morning, a landscaper cutting grass at a car dealership; at 8:12 a.m., a taxi driver filling his gas tank; 8:37, a house cleaner sitting on a shopping center bench; 9:58, a nanny vacuuming her employer's van at a gas station; and later that day, a handyman simply crossing the street.
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PETER JENNINGS: It was a terrifying situation for thousands of people, gunmen in the neighborhood killing individuals in a methodical way.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a level of fear that we're not used to.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's like, what you do now? Are our kids safe?
JENNINGS: When the news got on the radio and the television people were too frightened to go outside, it happened again and again - and again.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Pop - it was a loud pop. You hear something say, pop! And then I heard a lady start screaming.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: People just really can't understand how someone could do this in the senseless killings, the random killings.
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Virtually every law-enforcement agency in this area - including local police, the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and Secret Service - is looking for whoever is responsible for the worst murder spree that has that has ever happened here.
BLOCK: Ultimately, the gunman turned out to be two men working together - John Allen Muhammad, and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo. By the time they were arrested some three weeks later, they had killed 10 people in the Washington region. Three more were seriously wounded. In a moment, we'll hear from one of those survivors - shot five times in his parked car, and left for dead.
But first, I'll talk with one of the men charged with running the massive investigation to find the so-called D.C. snipers. Authorities chased down thousands of leads before Muhammad and Malvo were finally spotted at a rest stop in suburban Maryland, and arrested. Capt. Barney Forsythe was then head of the major crimes division in Montgomery County, Maryland. And he remembers the morning of October 3rd - the worst day - when word came in of one killing after another.
BARNEY FORSYTHE: I've described it to some people as sort of like getting hit in the face - if you've ever been in a fight - and you're shocked. And you have to, you know, get your bearings, and realize that you're - you're not in over your head, but this is territory that you're not familiar with.
BLOCK: I'm trying to imagine what it must be like, for someone who does what you do. You have killings mounting day after day, over the course of weeks. You have families coming to you - no doubt - and saying, why can't you find these guys? They are shooting in dense, urban areas; there's got to be somebody who's seen what's happened. And you haven't been able to stop them.
FORSYTHE: (Breathes deeply) Well, just like I just did - I take a deep breath because you - sometimes, you just can't provide people with the answer. And what they have to have, is the faith. And Montgomery County Police Department - and the Washington metropolitan area has some pretty good police departments, with good reputations. And we work well with the federal and state authorities. And that was extremely important.
But is it frustrating? Yes, it is. But you also realize that you can't spend too much time on frustration because that's counterproductive. You have to keep moving forward.
BLOCK: I remember thinking a lot at the time of these shootings, 10 years ago, that it's so easy to rip the fabric of a society apart. It didn't take much for these two men to sow panic. And I remember thinking, it's surprising it doesn't happen more often - and that's a terrible feeling.
FORSYTHE: I couldn't agree with you more. Our stance on that - and I say "ours"; probably collectively, it's as a law-enforcement community - is, you just have to work hard to try to make these things shorter, if they start happening; be better at working together - interagency help, and what have you. But, yes, it only took two people; one - you know, one with some training, and a child - for all intents and purposes - a teenager, to wreak that kind of havoc.
BLOCK: How much does this experience stay with you now?
FORSYTHE: It's with me. My involvement with it, especially within my family, friends knew that I was, you know, pretty deeply involved in the investigation. So there are times when you hear things - whether it's a, especially as we come up on the 10th anniversary. Or, and again, most police officers are probably like, if you've had investigations, you drive by places where you know somebody lost their life. When I'm down in the Aspen Hill area, you know, it's very tangible, you know, it means something probably to a lot of people from that area.
You drive through there. I remember standing over there with chief on the corner the first day, you know, trying to explain to a hoard of news people, you know, this is what we know and it wasn't much. So it's with me. It's with me. It's not - it doesn't overpower me. It's there.
BLOCK: Captain Forsythe, thanks for coming in.
FORSYTHE: My pleasure.
BLOCK: That's Captain Barney Forsythe. Ten years ago, he was head of the major crimes division in Montgomery County, Maryland. He's now retired.
Though John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo became known as the D.C. snipers, they're suspected of committing murders across the country before they got to the D.C. area. After his arrest, Malvo confessed to killing a woman in Tacoma, Washington earlier that year, in February of 2002. As he and Mohammad made their way from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, Malvo said they committed dozens of crimes. They've been linked to killings in Arizona, Alabama and Louisiana.
Mohammad and Malvo made it to Maryland at least a month before their D.C. killing spree. They wanted money to buy a car. In Clinton, Maryland, they staked out an Italian restaurant, Margellina. Each night, its owner Paul LaRuffa would close the restaurant around 10:00 and walk to his car. The pair watched LaRuffa for two nights. On the third, LaRuffa put his laptop and a briefcase, with roughly $3500, in the backseat.
As soon as he got behind the wheel, Lee Boyd Malvo walked up and shot LaRuffa five times, then took the briefcase and the computer.
PAUL LARUFFA: Before I could start the car or do anything, the window next to me just exploded and shattered glass all over me, with the first shot deafened my left ear. And the rest of the shots came in and they all hit me. It was mind-boggling. I mean, it was - just your world changes in a split second. So I raised up in the seat after it was quiet and I realized I was bleeding, so I held my hand over my chest and I opened the door, and I got to my feet and got out and hoped that somebody was there.
And one of the people I left with was there, walking towards me and he dialed 911 on his cell phone. And they took me to the trauma center and I made it there in time and they saved my life.
BLOCK: What do you remember thinking at the time about why you had been shot?
LARUFFA: Part of the mental situation you have is that you don't know why. You were fine one minute and then somebody shot you and you can't explain it. So not knowing that was the reason for that month, from September 5th until after Mohammad and Malvo were caught in October, mentally I went through hell. I had horrible flashbacks and I relived that moment daily.
And the good part was that shortly after they were captured, and they found my computer in their car, and they put the whole thing together - the whole event together - knowing that Malvo was the guy who shot me. And once that was done, shortly thereafter, I was OK. And I believe that a lot of it is because then I knew who did it and I just felt a lot better. And it's like it is today. I'm absolutely okay. I never had another flashback. I've told the story literally hundreds of times and I think that helped me, too.
BLOCK: Mr. LaRuffa, John Allen Mohammad was executed in 2009.
BLOCK: Did you agree with that punishment?
LARUFFA: Yes. I didn't really have a problem with it because, as one of the prosecutors said, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. And how can you argue that this man wasn't the worst of the worst?
BLOCK: Did you think about whether you wanted to observe the execution?
LARUFFA: Yeah. I was - I wrote a little memo to be read and handed out at the execution. And I wrote this thing that said I didn't want him to steal another day of my life. So I didn't attend. But I understood why some people needed to be there. I had no need to be there. And I told, in this letter, I said I will enjoy my grandchildren on that night. We went out to dinner and that's what I did. I wanted to do something happy and nice that night, just to show that he wasn't going to make me miserable for a day seven years later.
BLOCK: How much is the shooting still a part of your life, ten years after it happened?
LARUFFA: Well, it doesn't haunt me. It's just part of my life. I have absolutely accepted it as part of my life. And I learned somewhere along the line that it was okay to feel good that I survived, and the fact that I felt pretty darn happy that I had lived, it was okay to feel that way.
BLOCK: Mr. LaRuffa, I don't know how old your grandchildren are, but I'm wondering whether you have talked to them about what happened and what you would want them to know about violence and crime and their place in the world.
LARUFFA: Well, they're - my grandson, his birthday is today and he's 13, which is hard for me to believe. And then I have two granddaughters that are 11 and 8. They basically knew something happened, but I don't think my son has told them much about it. They know I was shot, so I plan to show them when they get a little older. I have multiple newspaper articles and I've saved a lot of things that explain the whole situation. And I would hope that they would look through that and read that and understand what happened. I would like them to get a sense that violence exists, you can't hide from it, and I would like them to also get a feeling that it's good that I survived, and that you can survive bad things. That bad things can happen, disappointments can happen and you can survive and get through them.
BLOCK: Well, Paul LaRuffa, thank you so much for talking with us today.
LARUFFA: You're quite welcome.
BLOCK: Paul LaRuffa, was shot five times by one of the D.C. snipers, Lee Boyd Malvo, in September 2002. He sold his restaurant. He's retired. And says he wants to use his experience to help other victims of violent crime and their families. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.