Around 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2002, Maryland State Police Lt. David Reichenbaugh was about 23 hours into his shift and finally headed home when he got word of the break he’d spent more than three weeks waiting for.
At the time, Reichenbaugh, 53, of Keedysville, was working as the operations commander for the agency’s Criminal Intelligence Division. He retired after 23 years with the state police and now works as a civilian with the U.S. Capitol Police.
Reichenbaugh said he had been involved in the investigation for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area snipers since the shootings had started 22 days before, heading up the unit that processed all the leads in the case, searching through criminal and weapons records to try to sort out credible leads from the ones that weren’t.
The job had consumed his time and attention. Reichenbaugh estimates that during the nearly monthlong investigation, he’d gone home about four times.
A few hours before the break in the case, the task force of law-enforcement agencies investigating the shootings had put out a statewide bulletin for police and residents to be on the lookout for John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. A flier had been released with photographs of the suspects and a similar model of car the pair was believed to be driving.
The state police superintendent had ordered a copy of the flier distributed to every police car in Maryland. Reichenbaugh had arranged with a sergeant at the Frederick state police barrack to have a trooper meet him at the Francis Scott Key Mall to drop off fliers to be distributed in Frederick County and points westward.
As he crossed from Montgomery County into Frederick County on his way from the task force’s headquarters in Rockville, he got a call on his radio asking him to switch to a less heavily-used frequency, one that was often used by troopers to relay sensitive information.
When he switched over, the trooper who’d contacted him told him that a car thought to be Muhammad’s had been spotted in a rest area along Interstate 70 in Myersville.
Reichenbaugh had spent most of his career at the Frederick and Hagerstown barracks and had hunted in the area around the rest stop. He knew it well.
Reichenbaugh knew he had a trooper coming from the Hagerstown barrack to pick up some fliers, as well as the trooper who was waiting at the mall in Frederick. He redirected them to the rest area.
When they got there, one of the troopers blocked the entrance with his vehicle while Reichenbaugh’s car blocked the exit.
As the senior officer at the scene, Reichenbaugh took command.
He arranged to have I-70 blocked off in both directions.
He told K-9 teams from the Frederick and Hagerstown barracks, as well as the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, to put their dogs in the highway median. He told the officers to keep the dogs quiet but to turn them loose on anyone not wearing a police uniform.
To complicate the situation, as the night wore on, federal agents began showing up at the scene in shorts, jeans, T-shirts or whatever else they’d thrown on when they’d gotten word of the sighting, he said.
Afraid that one of them would get shot by another officer in the pitch-black darkness, tension and confusion of the operation, Reichenbaugh ordered anyone not wearing a uniform out of the area.
That order didn’t go over very well, he noted drily, but finally a U.S. Marshal got on the phone and told the feds that Reichenbaugh was in charge of the scene and they were to follow his orders.
Knowing that word of the operation was bound to reach the media, Reichenbaugh asked the U.S. Secret Service to close the airspace over the rest stop to prevent any news helicopters from flying over with a spotlight and alerting the two men to their presence.
Police also used citizens band radios to contact the truckers in the rest area, telling them to stay in their vehicles, lock their doors and let officers know immediately if anyone approached them.
“How I was talking to all those people, to this day I don’t know,” Reichenbaugh said.
Amid a flurry of radio traffic as officers from various departments scrambled toward the scene, Reichenbaugh ordered a 10-3 — police code mandating that only urgent messages be relayed.
Investigators had compiled dossiers on Muhammad and Malvo as part of the investigation, but there was a lot the police didn’t know about the occupants of the blue Chevy Caprice parked in the rest area.
They didn’t know if the men had a police scanner and were listening as their operation unfolded. They were also afraid that one of the men might be sitting in the woods keeping watch while the other slept.
Outgunned with just their sidearms and shotguns against Muhammad and Malvo’s sniper rifle, the officers were keeping their distance from the Chevy as they awaited the arrival of FBI agents along with officers from the state and Montgomery County police tactical teams to launch an assault on the car.
The only other vehicles in the rest area were trucks. Reichenbaugh flagged down two of them as they were leaving, asking one of the drivers to jack-knife his rig at the entrance to the rest stop and the other do the same at the exit.
The last thing he wanted was for the men to escape and fight a running gun battle with police down the interstate, Reichenbaugh said.
“Those guys aren’t coming out of this rest area unless they’re in handcuffs or a [body] bag,” he remembers telling another officer.
Making the move
After about three hours, the tactical team moved in and arrested Muhammad and Malvo without incident.
Afterward, investigators wanted to go into the car immediately and begin collecting evidence, but Reichenbaugh told them to hold off until they could get a search warrant.
Later that morning, a collective cheer went up when they pulled the .223-caliber rifle out of the car, he said.
Unable to buy more ammunition without arousing suspicion, the snipers were down to two bullets when they were arrested, he said.
Reichenbaugh said that all through the night, they hadn’t been 100 percent positive they were after the right people.
But when he saw the gun, he thought: “We got ‘em. This is over.”
Earlier on the day of their arrest, Muhammad and Malvo had been spotted picking up cans across the street from Myersville Elementary School, Reichenbaugh said.
He’s convinced they were planning to shoot a student at the school as their next target.
It’s not based on any information that came out of the investigation or interviews with the killers after their arrests, just a hunch from 23 years spent mostly as an investigator.
“I’m positive that’s what they were going to do,” he said.
The impact of the shootings hadn’t truly hit him until one day several weeks into the investigation when he left the headquarters in Rockville to get something to eat. Driving down Rockville Pike at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, he was struck by the lack of traffic. That was when he fully realized the fear that gripped the region.
Over their three-week rampage of random terror, Muhammad and Malvo shot 13 people, including a 13-year-old student walking to his middle school. Ten of their victims died. The shootings paralyzed the region, with schools canceling outdoor recess and sporting events, and people forced to reconsider the safety of everyday chores such as pumping gas.
Reichenbaugh said the investigation into the killings was a great example of police work, with federal, state, county and local agencies working well together.
But he said the anniversary of the killings is more about the victims and their families than what the police did.
“There is not a day goes by that I don’t think about that and those families,” he said.