WASHINGTON – On Sept. 5, 2002, Paul LaRuffa left his restaurant in Clinton, got into his car, and, before he could turn his head, the window to his left broke and he was shot five times.
LaRuffa was one of the seven surviving victims of the men who became known as the “Beltway snipers” — John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo — whose shooting spree across seven states and Washington, D.C., killed 15.
“They were in different areas — that was the horror of it all,” LaRuffa said. “They could be anywhere, picking people off.”
In the Washington, D.C., region, the snipers killed 10 people in 13 shootings from Oct. 2 to Oct. 22, financing this spree with money they stole from LaRuffa. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the shootings that left every citizen worried they could be a potential victim, and was “in some ways, the scariest thing this country has seen outside of an organized terror attack,” according to a Washington Post writer who covered the story.
Muhammad and Malvo attacked randomly in parking lots of schools, gas stations and malls, mostly in the D.C. area, but they were also connected to attacks across the U.S.
The youngest victim was 13-year-old Iran Brown, who was shot and wounded on Oct.7 on his way to school in the parking lot of Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie.
The oldest victim, Pascal Charlot, 72, was shot and killed crossing the street at Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road in Northwest Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3.
Bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, was the last victim, shot and killed on Oct. 22 at the intersection of Grand Pre Road and Connecticut Avenue in Aspen Hill, Md., while standing on the top step of his bus.
These events brought the community together, including local and federal law enforcement agencies, in what has been called the “largest manhunt in U.S. history,” said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent April Carroll, who was involved in the case from the first week of the October attacks.
It was surprising how quickly Muhammad and Malvo were caught, Carroll said recently. “Had it not been for their determination to communicate with law enforcement and tell us things, it would’ve been a much longer process.”
Still, after 10 years, some things about the case will remain a mystery.
For example, there’s the case of the white van. Muhammad and Malvo were shooting from a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, but police were aggressively searching for a white van, which witnesses had reported speeding away from the scene of one of the shootings.
There were multiple reports about a Caprice at the crime scenes, first at the D.C. shooting, but there was never anything suspicious about it, law enforcement officials said. Multiple police departments had contact with Muhammad in the Caprice, but nothing was ever out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the reports about the white van kept coming.
“To this day I really don’t have the capacity to articulate why that didn’t make it all the way up the flag pole, why we didn’t focus on that car,” said retired Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, then head of the sniper investigation. “It wasn’t as clear in the sense as the reports with regards to the white vans.”
While there are some things about the case that remain uncertain, 10 years have led to definite changes in law enforcement practices, but haven’t changed the concrete lessons learned by those involved.
Improved technology and resources today would probably have made the Caprice come up in the investigation sooner, law enforcement officials involved in the case said.
There are also more plans in place, better communication and more task forces, improving law enforcement’s response if something like this were to happen again, Carroll said.
Although the “scale and rapidness” of the Beltway sniper was unique, you never know when something can happen like this, Carroll said.
Six of the region’s shootings occurred within about 24 hours and within a few miles of each other on Oct. 2 and 3. Others came days apart and ranged through Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.
“I don’t think there’s anything that makes us safer,” Carroll said. “I think the technology makes us more reactive.”
LaRuffa agrees the technology now would probably help catch a suspect sooner, but that technology doesn’t matter if people are intent on violence.
“Would that have prevented me from getting shot? Probably not,” LaRuffa said. “In the society we live in, I think something similar could happen again.”
Muhammad and Malvo were ultimately arrested after a refrigerator repairman saw their Caprice with the license plate that had been reported as the suspect’s at a rest stop parking lot off Interstate 70 in Myersville, Md., on Oct. 24 and told authorities. FBI agents, Maryland State Police, and Montgomery County Police Department officers arrived and arrested Muhammad and Malvo, who were sleeping in the car.
Ten years later, it is important to see the resolution of this case as a success, but know that improvements are being made, Moose said.
“If something similar happens again, there are people working to make sure the response is even better,” Moose said.
For the community, this experience is something everyone shares in common. It brought everyone together — from the different police and federal agencies working on the case, to community residents, worrying about their children playing outside at school or spouses stopping to get gas.
Personally, for Moose, who is now retired in Florida, working on the case of his career simplified his idea of happiness.
“We spend so much energy seeking happiness, when we should just have happiness because we’ve got another day to be among the living,” Moose said.
LaRuffa said he hopes people will carry lessons they learned from this with them, even if they’ve moved on.
“People forget,” LaRuffa said. “That event was so big that anyone around at the time in this area of the country, they’ll remember it longer than a lot of things, but generally the public forgets the intensity after a while.”
The shootings were brought again to public scrutiny during the 2003 trials of Muhammad and Malvo. Malvo is serving a life sentence without parole at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, and Muhammad was executed in Virginia in November 2009.
For LaRuffa, Malvo and Muhammad’s trials — where he testified — were especially emotional. So was Muhammad’s subsequent execution, which LaRuffa did not attend.
“It brought it all to mind again,” LaRuffa said. “This whole thing–why did it happen? And now this guy’s getting executed.”
In the years since the attacks, the lives of those involved have changed, but they still keep their memories of the events with them and hope that while the years have lessened the memories for the community, the lessons learned won’t be forgotten.
In the aftermath of the sniper attacks, the community learned to appreciate little things and that is something people should not forget, said Moose.
“All of the sudden, going outside to play, kids were happy,” Moose said. “They didn’t have to have the new iPhone, they didn’t have to have the new this, the new that — they could just go outside. So maybe we’ve forgotten about that. Maybe this is a good time to remember that just going outside and walking the dog is a good time.”
LaRuffa sold his restaurant in 2008 and is taking a few years off work until he figures out what he wants to do next. While his life is a lot different now that he is not in the restaurant business, what happened to him will remain a big part of his life. As for the rest of the community, he thinks that while most people tend to forget the intensity of what happened over time, some probably learned at least a little from the attacks.
“A lot of those people left in the morning and never came back,” LaRuffa said. “People generally learn that might happen. That you should value every day because it might be your last one. I think some people learned that. If 100 people are different because of that, it’s a good thing.”