For three weeks in October 2002, mundane activities such as pumping gas, waiting for a bus or walking through a shopping center parking lot meant potentially taking your life in your hands.
Across the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region, someone was killing people as they went about the normal tasks of everyday life.
By the time they were arrested at a rest stop along Interstate 70 in Myersville on Oct. 24, 2002, John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had shot 13 people in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, killing 10.
For residents, the attacks drove terrorized people inside their homes rather than enjoying the autumn weather.
For the police responsible for protecting the public and responding to the shootings, it was three weeks spent coordinating with their colleagues around the region and doing anything possible to prevent an attack on their own territory.
“I was concerned that they were coming up our direction,” said Jim Hagy, who served as sheriff of Frederick County from 1994 until 2006.
Several of the attacks had taken place in neighboring Montgomery County, and the sheriff’s office and other police in Frederick County were preparing as best they could to fight an enemy about whom they had little hard information.
The county had recently started its crime-mapping program, plotting the locations of crime reports to try and find possible connections, Hagy said.
Gathering information from the investigators handling the various shootings, it was determined that they had all taken place near major highway interchanges. That led the sheriff’s office and Frederick detachment of the Maryland State Police to look at possible targets near entrances and exits to Interstates 70 and 270 and other major roads, Hagy said.
The department also sent its K-9 units into wooded areas around shopping centers in the county to see if anyone was hiding there, he said.
Hagy said he doesn’t think anyone thought the snipers were shooting from the trunk of a car, as eventually turned out to be the case.
Deputies were working 12-hour shifts, with leave and other nonessential time off canceled, said Maj. Scot Hopkins of the sheriff’s office, who served as the office’s liaison to the task force of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies investigating the shootings.
The department had also designed contingency plans with state police and other departments if something were to happen in Frederick County, such as which roads and intersections would be shut down to prevent the shooters from getting away, he said.
Each morning, Hopkins would drive to an office building in Rockville that the group had taken over for a 6 a.m. briefing on the latest developments.
The room where they met had a large screen where tips that came in were displayed. Hopkins said he sat at a large table with representatives from other departments, waiting for tips that involved their respective areas.
When a Frederick County tip came in, the person who took the call would relay it to Hopkins, who would relay it back to Frederick to be checked out.
Throughout the investigation, Hopkins said he relayed perhaps several dozen tips, ranging from cars parked in an unusual place to suspicious people or other scenarios.
The investigation was frustrating without more concrete information, Hopkins said.
Officers throughout the region were looking for white box trucks, which were part of the initial reports about the shootings.
But you also didn’t want to get “tunnel vision” and become so focused on white trucks that you missed something else suspicious, Hopkins said.
“At the time, no one knew exactly what they were looking for,” he said.
Malvo said he would look for white box trucks nearby when preparing for a shooting, knowing they would attract attention from witnesses and authorities, according to an interview Sunday in the Washington Post.
The lack of hard information was frustrating for police, said Tom Chase, a former lieutenant with the Frederick Police Department.
As the shootings continued, investigators continued to get information to look for the white trucks, he said.
But when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested, the blue Chevrolet Caprice they were driving was nothing like what officers had been told to look for.
“When cops work the street, they like to do their job, but they have to have a body of knowledge that allows them to do their job,” Chase said.
That uncertainty made it difficult for police, said Frederick Police Chief Kim Dine, who had just taken over the department in July 2002 after 27 years with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.
“This was a puzzle that was inexplicable,” Dine said.
Dine recalls lots of time spent in meetings and conference calls with other chiefs around the region as they traded information.
Meanwhile, the department tried to beef up their visibility around the city to try and scare off any potential attacks before they were executed.
“We wanted to be as visible as we could be,” Dine said.
When the duo was finally spotted at the Myersville rest stop, Hopkins, who lives in the area, responded.
A helicopter carrying a team of FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents landed at the Myersville fire hall, where the agents got briefed on the layout of the scene and headed to the rest stop, he said.
Although he never went to the actual scene, Hopkins recalled the relief at the hall when it was clear the shooting spree was over.
“They called out that they got them, and everyone applauded,” he said.