Apprehension

The Capture of the Infamous Beltway Snipers in Frederick County, A Book Excerpt

By David Reichenbaugh | Photography by National Law Enforcement Museum | Posted on 10.29.18 – Feature, History

Tuesday, Oct, 22, 2002. We now knew their names. After three weeks, ten killings and four injuries, more than a dozen of us were sitting in our makeshift command center looking at the faces of the two people who had done so much killing.

In front of me on the computer screen was a photo of Lee Malvo. He was just a kid—17 years old. Could this really be a mastermind of one of the worst shooting rampages this country had ever seen? Could this kid really have pulled the trigger on so many people?

He and his mentor, John Allen Muhammad, had terrorized the Beltway area of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia in one of the most bizarre crime sprees ever—targeting random people, shooting to kill and holding the tristate area hostage for twenty days now. For 18 of those days, we at the Sniper Murder Task Force (SNIPMUR) had pored over thousands of tips, phone calls and minimal evidence trying to track down one thing, anything, that would help us identify the perpetrators. Now we had names.

For three weeks, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies had been working together to stop the rampage. We were exhausted; we had been at it around the clock, taking breaks only when ordered to, and chasing dead ends for way too long. We had searched in vain for a white van, which witnesses claimed to have seen at several of the crime scenes. And time wasn’t on our side—the victim totals were rising, and every day that these killers stayed on the streets meant more victims.

Not that there were many people still on the streets. Throughout the area, residents were in hiding. They hid behind their cars while pumping gas. Restaurants’ shades were drawn, and their parking lots were nearly empty. Grocery stores, shops and otherwise busy streets looked abandoned. Schools were in lockdown during school hours, and heavily armed troopers, officers and SWAT teams patrolled the perimeters. Playgrounds were empty, activities were canceled. Life had come to a standstill as residents held their collective breath.

But now we had names. With those names, the details were falling into place. No more white van; the vehicle was now identified as a blue Chevrolet Caprice. Inside the joint operations center for SNIPMUR, the excitement was palpable.

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, I was ordered to go home and get some sleep. I left the joint operations center—the JOC, as we called it—and headed home after 1 a.m. Then back to the JOC by 5:30 a.m. Once again, I spent most of the day with the team reviewing what we knew and strategizing our next moves. Little did we know that our luck was about to change.

At 10:30 that night, I was sent home to rest. Then my police radio crackled and came alive. It was Sgt. Bob Hundertmark. “Car 662, we just received a cell phone call from a citizen in the westbound rest area [near Myersville] on I-70. The caller advised that there is a Caprice in the rest area parking lot, and then repeated the tag that we had put out over the air.”

There were too many things racing through my mind all at once. I had to get there before that car took off. I just had to. And I didn’t want any more information going over the air than was necessary. I called the barrack on my cell phone and spoke directly to Sgt. Hundertmark.

I had to make sure we had a witness in case the killers slipped by us. I asked Hundertmark if he still had contact with the witness.

“I do, yes.”

“Get his cell phone number and find out all you can about what he saw. Make sure the caller is safe, and find out if he saw anybody in or around the car. Oh, and find out how many people and vehicles this guy estimates are in the rest area. Who’s moving around the area?” My mind was going faster than my ability to give instructions to Hundertmark.

“And sergeant?”

“Yes?”

I hesitated. Surely it was the right car, but we had to be sure. “Can you have the caller recheck the tag number and description of the car? Tell him to do that only if it’s safe to do so.”

The one thing that could be to my advantage this night was that these guys had been found on my home turf. They would have to face some of the best troopers the Maryland State Police had.

When the first call from Sgt. Hundertmark had come, I was more than forty miles from the rest area. Having worked most of my career in Frederick County, I knew that rest area well. I had patrolled it many times during my uniformed days, and had set up more than one undercover drug deal there because it was an easy area to control. One way in, one way out. Plus, it was a public area where people were always coming and going, so it was easy to set up a surveillance team to monitor and record the drug buys. The problem was, it was public access. Hopefully we would get lucky now and there wouldn’t be a ton of people there at this time of night.

If the snipers had decided to lie low in this rest area, they had made a huge mistake: they had boxed themselves in. All we had to do was shut both the entrance ramp and exit ramp before they realized it.

At the entrance ramp I saw two marked MSP rollers parked across the roadway to prevent anybody from entering. A third, marked K-9 car was pulling up just as I arrived. I came to a stop behind them and checked in with the barrack duty officer.

I got on the cell phone with my two witnesses. I remained calm, mostly for their sake, but also because I wanted to keep my wits about me. I told them who I was and asked them a series of questions.

“Do you feel safe? If not, we can sneak a couple of troopers in to get you out.”

They told me that they felt safe for the moment. They still were not seeing any movement in or around the parked Caprice, nor anywhere in the rest area.

“OK, good. Now either a Frederick duty officer or I will remain on the line with you for the duration. If at any time you feel threatened, then we can be there in less than one minute.”

I filled them in on my plan, which was to completely surround the rest area with troopers. We would carefully plan the arrest and execute it, I told them, when it was the right time. “This is going to take a considerable amount of time before we’re ready, and success is going to depend on your ability to be our eyes. But again, if you feel threatened at any point, just say the word, and we’ll get you out.”

I looked across the parking lot in the direction of the parked blue Caprice. I could just see it through the trees, across the lawn and beyond the picnic tables, about 150 yards away. I had the earpiece attached to my portable radio with the ear bud in my right ear. I heard the soft squelch of the radio. [Tactical commander Maj. Jim] Ballard’s voice came on briefly. “Thirty seconds out.”

I halted our three-man skirmish line. I could only just make out the TANGO teams [tactical units teams that included federal, state and local officers] emerging from the woods behind the Caprice.

They were nothing more than dark shadows. They moved quietly and quickly in tactical formation, closing the gap between the parked Caprice and the thirty yards of lawn that separated the parking lot from the tree line. The three of us took cover behind anything we could find. We also got low in the event bullets started flying. TANGO knew we were there. They knew I had shrunk the perimeter on our side to provide cover for our witnesses. Bullets wouldn’t come in our direction unless they came from the snipers.

The TANGO team approached the car and split into two groups, one moving to the driver’s side and the other to the passenger side. I knew what would happen next, but my heart still jumped a beat when the teams smashed the two car windows simultaneously.

I closed my eyes as I had been trained to do when I heard or anticipated the flash-bang grenades going off. The flash-bangs are just as the term implies. They go off with one hell of a bang and a flash of bright light. The bang is designed to invoke confusion and the flash is to instill blindness because it would happen faster than the killer’s minds could process the information or understand what the hell just happened. The few seconds of confusion were all that TANGO would need. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t lose my night vision.

However, what I had anticipated never happened. TANGO had caught them so much by surprise that there was no need to use flash-bangs.

It seemed to be happening in slow motion. I saw hands reach inside the vehicle and bodies being pulled out, one on each side. From where I stood, the snipers looked like rag dolls, one pulled from the front seat and the other from the back seat, then quickly vaulted clear of the car and thrown to the pavement. Two large, heavily armored troopers, complete with Kevlar helmets and their night-vision equipment flipped up and out of the way, leaped on top of them. The troopers worked fast, quickly securing the suspects’ hands behind their backs and searching them for weapons.

The radio crackled. Ballard’s voice came over the air: “Be advised, the suspects are secured. The scene is secure.”

I took a deep breath for the first time in hours. All that anticipation of things going badly wrong, all that thinking and anticipating what the next move would be depending on what happened—it left me in an instant. It was as if someone had finally rolled that dump truck loaded with ten tons of gravel off my chest.

It also felt like victory. We had somehow been able to surround two of the most notorious and cold-blooded killers in American history and end their killing spree without having to fire a shot.

From In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers by David Reichenbaugh, published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.

Interview with the Author

FM: Describe your role in the 2002 investigation into one of the country’s worst shooting sprees.

DR: At the time I was a lieutenant with the Maryland State Police, assigned as the operations commander for the Criminal Intelligence Division. The promotion came shortly after 9/11 and I was tasked to assist MSP in getting back into the active intelligence-gathering business.

When the Montgomery County shootings began, we collected, organized, tracked and analyzed the thousands of tips that came in as well as analyzing hundreds of data sets to include registered owners of .223-caliber rifles, people that had purchased ammunition for such a rifle, owners of white vans [mistakenly reported by witnesses] and criminal records of those associated with any number of factors we considered. We were looking for the needle in a hay stack in a field full of hay stacks.

The day we put it all together, a lookout for the blue Caprice was put out in two states and D.C. I figured my job for the night was done and was just trying to go home to Frederick and get some long overdue sleep when the Caprice was spotted in the Myersville rest area. Responding, I found myself in command of their capture and the crime scene.

FM: Why is it important for you to tell the story?

DR: In the 16 years since the sniper case, it has largely been accepted as the most intense manhunt in U.S. law enforcement history. The books written so far are all OK, but superficial. The one movie was awful, and I didn’t recognize it as the same case I had worked on.

If details aren’t recorded in some meaningful way they’re lost forever. I wanted to show the case from the ground up and the thought process and emotions of the cops. Being involved from day one, I was in a unique position. I don’t pretend to know every nuance, but wrote what I saw, heard and felt, written from the State Police perspective in a way not to diminish the outstanding work done by other agencies. If I was unsuccessful getting published I wanted my family to know the story.

FM: Do you enjoy writing?

DR: Very much and I always have. As a kid in rural Western Pennsylvania I spent afternoons at a backyard picnic table writing stories—mostly police stories because I always wanted to be a trooper. I have written stories for my grandchildren and have a second book well underway.

FM: Any chance In Pursuit will be turned into a movie? Who should play you?

DR: My agent has been approached by more than one producer concerning book rights. We’ll see where that goes. I am excited about the possibility and honored that it’s being considered. Every day I pinch myself into believing I was able to get published. I have been working at this for more than five years.

Someone suggested that Bradley Cooper should play me in the movie version. I thought that was funny on the face of it. I haven’t really given this much thought. I picture myself more of a Jim Belushi-type guy.

David Reichenbaugh served as criminal intelligence operations commander for the Maryland State Police and as the commanding officer at the scene during the Beltway snipers’ capture near Myersville.