A fingerprint found at an Alabama crime scene, which then was connected to a run-in with immigration authorities the year before, put a face to a mass murderer — a tortuous connection that revealed the law enforcement teamwork necessary to crack the Beltway sniper investigation.
On Oct. 2, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo began a shooting spree that paralyzed the region with fear. During the course of 22 days, the pair shot 13 people, killing 10, including six in Montgomery County; one of whom was Conrad E. Johnson, 35, of Oxon Hill. In addition, 13-year-old Iran Brown was shot while walking into Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, but survived the shooting.
Within hours of the first shootings, Montgomery County police had received assistance from every major local, state and federal police agency.
“As unprecedented as this particular crime spree was, I think equally unprecedented was the response by law enforcement at the local state and federal level,” said Nick DeCarlo, a former Montgomery County police sergeant who worked in the major crimes division at the time. “We didn’t even have to really call; we had people calling us; ‘What can we do to help? How can we assist you guys in this?’”
DeCarlo, who now works cold cases for Howard County police, took a lead role on the joint task force that developed out of the major crimes division. With every shooting, another agency was invited to send their investigators to the task force and share their information, DeCarlo said.
Partnerships with the FBI greatly enhanced the task force’s ability to follow up on leads from across the country quickly and efficiently, while the ATF opened its lab resources to the task force, allowing for almost instantaneous ballistic analysis of each crime scene, DeCarlo said.
Former Prince George’s Police Chief Gerald Wilson, who oversaw the county department at the time of the shootings, said the existing partnership with Montgomery County police and the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., led to the quick and efficient involvement between so many jurisdictions.
“When we had to come together, bridges were already in place. Cross-border relationships were huge. ... It’s not the most effective to try to develop those relationships in the midst of a crisis. In our case, we did not have to,” Wilson said, who retired from the Prince George’s department two years after the shootings.
He now works as the public safety director for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
Wilson said the “blanket of fear” over the community further motivated each department to unify and pull together resources.
“We were really chasing a ghost it seemed like for a while, until investigators started to piece together some really excellent information,” Wilson said.
One of the reasons the task force was able to break the case so quickly was the ability of federal agents to help local investigators link together evidence from a seemingly unrelated shooting a month earlier outside a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., DeCarlo said.
Muhammad and Malvo had called the police to boast about that shooting, but the initial case appeared to be a robbery, quite different from the apparently random shootings in Maryland and Virginia, DeCarlo said.
Malvo’s fingerprints were on an ammunition package left at the scene of the Alabama shooting. Police matched it to fingerprints found at the scene of one of the Maryland shootings. Federal agents identified the prints as Malvo’s through a run-in he had with immigration agents in 2001, said Drew Tracy, who retired from the Montgomery County Police Department last year at the rank of assistant chief.
Police then had a name and a face.
The fatal shootings began Oct. 2, 2002, at the Shopper’s Food Warehouse, at 2201 Randolph Road, in Wheaton.
The next day, investigators realized they were dealing with a new kind of domestic terrorism when Muhammad and Malvo shot and killed four people in Montgomery County and another man in Washington, D.C.
“Law enforcement in the last 20 years has been proactive in trying to plan and anticipate major events that require a police emergency response, but this was unique in that it was an incident involving investigations ... what is ongoing is the investigation,” DeCarlo said.
Tracy, a captain at the time of the shootings, also organized the task force’s tactical response to the shootings. Along with their investigative resources, many agencies quickly made their special assault and counter-terrorism experts available to Montgomery County, including the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and tactical officers from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department and Maryland State Police.
“...I needed to have tactical teams that had long-gun capability and I needed them to be on the scene within two minutes of each incident and, to do that, I needed to have multiple teams out there,” Tracy said. “So we told all these people from different agencies, ‘Now you’re a team.’”
Consistently, Prince George’s police officers in the department’s Community Investigations Division also were dispatched to patrol for the suspects or suspicious activity.
Each Prince George’s officer assigned to the joint task force had a morning and afternoon patrol location around county school walking path areas, Wilson said.
“Nothing would destroy the morale of a community more than to have another child shot,” Wilson said, refering to the shooting of a Benjamin Tasker Middle School eighth-grader, Iran Brown, who was critically shot after getting dropped off at the Bowie school. “We needed to maintain the community’s confidence enough to do everything we could to at least keep their children safe.”
Wilson noted that the Prince George’s investigation’s focus was primarily surrounding county schools.
“Sometimes you have crimes occur, you can attribute to someone’s risk taking,” Wilson said. “But these victims were going about their everyday tasks. Everyone could see themselves in a similar situation, so there was urgency to catch the person to regain a sense of normalcy. It was an amazing set of circumstances to have to go through.”
Despite their diverse backgrounds, the teams had cross-trained after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Sgt. Jeff Nyce, who led the joint FBI and Montgomery County SWAT team that eventually apprehended Muhammad and Malvo at a rest stop near Myersville in the early morning hours of Oct. 24, 2002. They had a general sense of the need to resolve the shootings that allowed the tactical experts to cooperate almost instantaneously, Nyce said.
After Maryland State Troopers sealed off all the exits to the rest stop, tactical officers from the FBI’s hostage rescue team and Montgomery County SWAT set up a perimeter and approached the blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that Muhammad and Malvo were sleeping in, Nyce said.
“When the call came in that the vehicle had been located, the FBI’s HRT had the numbers and assets to do it all by themselves, if they had chosen ... but they knew how much we had put into it,” Nyce said.
In particular, Nyce recalled a conversation he had with the FBI team leader in which Nyce thanked him for allowing Montgomery SWAT officers to participate in the takedown.
“He said, ‘We started as a team, we finished as a team,’” Nyce said. “... It was very personal for every police officer in Montgomery County and they understood that and were very respectful of our efforts.”