The Strange True Story Of The Man Behind The D.C. Sniper Attacks Of 2002

The 2002 D.C. sniper attacks are several stories wrapped in one. It's a story of a serial killer, a story of a domestic abuser, a story of child indoctrination, and a story of terrorism. None of these stories negate the validity of the other, but the complexities of the story are often distilled into one story or the other. This occurs not only because there are so many factors at play, but because of the time and place in which the incident took place.

According to the podcast You're Wrong About, when the sniper attacks were occurring, countless women phoned in to report their current husbands or ex-husbands, claiming that they had the arsenal and the potential to commit the sniper attacks. As a result, the story of domestic abuse stands out in the narrative of the D.C. sniper because Mildred Muhammad, the ex-wife of John Allen Muhammad, repeatedly tried to let people know that her ex-husband was dangerous. Unfortunately, no one listened until it was too late. This is the strange true story of the man behind the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002.

A story of rippling abuse

Both John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo came from incredibly abusive families. As CNN reports, growing up, Muhammad was "regularly and severely beaten as a child by several relatives, including an uncle who beat another child to death at a Louisiana reform school."

According to an interview with Mildred Muhammad (via YouTube), John's ex-wife, despite the abuse he suffered growing up, Muhammad was an amicable man until he came back from serving in the Gulf War. At this point, he became verbally and physically abusive toward Mildred. After Mildred filed a restraining order against him, during one of his visitations John absconded with their three children to Antigua.

Malvo, who met John in Antigua, was abandoned by his father and grew up with a mother who repeatedly abandoned him and abused him when she was around, per The Atlantic. Ultimately, this made it incredibly easy for Muhammad to eventually manipulate a teenage boy into committing the sniper attacks.

After Muhammad returned to the United States with the children, the FBI was eventually able to find him. However, although Mildred was reunited with her children, "because it was a custody hearing, John wasn't charged with any crime." Mildred taking the children away seemed to break John, as reported in You're Wrong About, and this led him to conceiving of the sniper plan. Many believe the attacks were meant to include Mildred, so that John could show up as the grieving father and regain custody of his children.

The D.C. sniper attacks

From October 2 to October 24, 2002, 41-year-old Muhammad and 17-year-old Malvo drove around Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia executing people via sniper attacks. According to the FBI, ten people were murdered and three more were critically injured during the sniper attacks.

However, these weren't the only shootings that Muhammad and Malvo committed. One of their first victims was in February 2002, and it's estimated that they murdered at least seven people and injured six others during the preliminary shootings between February and September, per Rolling Stone.

You're Wrong About notes that as serial killers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo weren't that sophisticated. Yet, law enforcement only caught up with them because they called the police "in a bit of an investigative tease," telling the police to look into a murder in Alabama from a month earlier. This set off a domino effect, and police were finally able to put the pieces of evidence together to come up with their suspects. But after Muhammad and Malvo's arrest, it was revealed truly how many times they'd evaded capture.

Slipping through cracks in the system

Overall, police stopped the blue Chevy Caprice that John Muhammad and Malvo were driving at least nine times during the three-week period of sniper attacks. According to NBC News, police stopped them between eight to ten times, but after running checks on Muhammad's driver's license and finding nothing unusual, they let them go. Even though The New York Times reports that in March 2002, a warrant was issued for John after he was arrested for shoplifting in Tacoma, Washington.

Another reason the Beltway Snipers were repeatedly let go is that after the shooting on October 3, witnesses claimed that they'd seen a white van speeding away from the shooting. This ended up giving the police tunnel vision, and even after witnesses of other shootings said that they'd seen a different, darker car, police were fixated on looking for a white van, writes The Washington Post.

According to, Mildred Muhammad also repeatedly called the police to report John's abusive behavior while they were together, and they did little to help her. She spent over 18 months talking about how John was a danger to herself and others and, as reported in You're Wrong About, had gotten a lifetime restraining order. And when the ATF came to Mildred's door on October 23 and asked if she thought her husband was capable of committing the sniper attacks, she said "yes."

What happened to John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo?

The Baltimore Sun reports that although Muhammad's lawyers tried to claim that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Muhammad was deemed competent to represent himself. In one of his final closing arguments, Muhammad reportedly rambled for over three hours.

In Virginia, Muhammad was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. In Maryland, Muhammad was convicted of six courts of murder, one of which was attributed to the intent to commit an act of terrorism, and given six life sentences. According to You're Wrong About, since prosecutors had wanted to charge Muhammad with terrorism, nothing about his domestic abuse history was allowed into evidence, because otherwise that would indicate a motive other than terrorism. On November 10, 2009, Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.

Malvo pled not guilty in Virginia, possibly to avoid the death penalty, with his defense arguing that he'd been indoctrinated and brainwashed by John Allen Muhammad. However, Malvo was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole, reports CNN.

Between 2014 and 2020, Malvo was fighting against his sentences of life imprisonment in court, citing a 2012 Supreme Court decision that made it unconstitutional to give life sentences without parole to juveniles. After Virginia passed a bill allowing juvenile offenders the possibility of parole even with a sentence of life imprisonment, the Supreme Court dismissed Malvo's pending case. However, Lee Boyd Malvo is still ineligible for parole due to his life sentences in Maryland.