Home News Stories 2007 October The Beltway Snipers, Pt. 2
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The Beltway Snipers, Pt. 2

A Byte Out of History
The Beltway Snipers, Part 2


FBI evidence experts surveyed many crime scene sites like this one during the sniper case.
FBI evidence experts surveyed many
crime scene sites like this one during
the sniper case.

It was just another fall evening in the nation’s capital—until a sniper’s bullet struck down a 55-year-old man in a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland. By 10 o’clock the next morning—October 3, 2002—four more people within a few miles of each other had been similarly murdered.

The attacks were soon linked, and a massive multi-agency investigation was launched, led by the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland.

Within days, the FBI alone had some 400 agents around the country working the case. We’d set up a toll-free number to collect tips from the public, with teams of new agents in training helping to work the hotline. Our evidence experts were asked to digitally map many of the evolving crime scenes, and our behavioral analysts helped prepare a profile of the shooter for investigators. We’d also set up a Joint Operations Center to help Montgomery County investigators run the case.

But the big break in the case came, ironically, from the snipers themselves.

On October 17, a caller claiming to be the sniper phoned in to say, in a bit of an investigative tease, that he was responsible for the murder of two women (actually, only one was killed) during the robbery of a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama, a month earlier.

That set in motion a chain of events that led to the capture of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo four days later, ending 23 days of random attacks in the Washington, D.C, area.

Beltway Snipers: Tarot “Death” Card
The snipers left Tarot “Death” cards like this one
at some of the shooting sites. Note the words
“Call me God” at the top.

Here’s how the investigation played out:

  • Investigators soon learned that a crime similar to the one described in the call had indeed taken place—and that fingerprint and ballistic evidence were available from the case.
  • An agent from our office in Mobile gathered that evidence and quickly flew to Washington, D.C., arriving Monday evening, October 21. While ATF handled the ballistic evidence, we took the fingerprint evidence to the FBI Laboratory (then located at our Headquarters).
  • The following morning, our fingerprint database produced a match—a magazine dropped at the crime scene bore the fingerprints of Lee Boyd Malvo from a previous arrest in Washington State. We now had a suspect…
  • The arrest record provided another important lead, mentioning a man named John Allen Muhammad. One of our agents from Tacoma recognized the name from a tip called into that office on the case. A second suspect…
  • Our work with ATF agents revealed that Muhammad had a Bushmaster .223 rifle in his possession, a federal violation since he’d been served with a restraining order to stay away from his ex-wife. That enabled us to charge him with federal weapons violations. And with Malvo clearly connected, the FBI and ATF jointly obtained a federal material witness warrant for him. The legal papers were now in our hands…
  • Meanwhile, on October 22, we searched our criminal records database and found that Muhammad had registered a blue Chevy Caprice with the license plate of NDA-21Z in New Jersey. That description was given to the news media and shared far and wide, leading to the arrest of the two snipers.

That was the end of the attacks, but not our role in the case. We spent many more hours gathering evidence and preparing it for court—work that ultimately paid off in the convictions of both Malvo and Muhammad.

- Part 1 of the story
- More “Bytes Out of History”