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Officers Recall End to D.C. Snipers' Terror Grip

Ten years ago today, a sense of normalcy was slowly returning to the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. areas.

Students were returning to playing fields and people were once again strolling in parks and taking in the fall colors. Even a visit to a gas station was taking on a new look.

For three weeks, their lives had been in turmoil.

Not knowing where the D.C. snipers would hit next, no one lingered anywhere. People dashed in and out of stores. Drivers of big trucks suddenly found themselves unlikely heroes as they shielded others at gas stations.

News of the capture of the two men responsible for the murders of 10 people and wounding of three others -- John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo -- brought elation and relief.

The two were taken into custody without incident in a rest area along I-70 in Frederick County, Md.

Muhammad was executed by lethal injection in a Virginia prison in 2009, while Malvo, who was a juvenile, remains incarcerated.

Two retired Maryland State Police troopers say it was a case like no other.

When shots rang out in Montgomery County on Oct. 3, 2002, MSP (ret.) Lt. Ray Wojcik was in class with federal, state and local officers. “Ironically,” he said. “The topic was domestic terrorism.”

As soon as they received word that four people had been shot in separate locations, the class was suspended, and the officers headed to Montgomery County. A case of domestic terrorism, they surmised.

For the next three weeks, Wojcik was spending 12-hour days in a command post fielding calls and coordinating follow-ups with liaisons from the FBI and Montgomery County.

When officers learned that a white box truck was seen leaving one of the early shooting scenes, police all over the East Coast started stopping vehicles matching that description - but it wasn't connected.

“I think the driver heard a shot or something, and decided to get the heck out of there,” he said. “Who could blame them?”

The snipers were captured in a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.

A car matching that description was observed leaving the scene of a shooting in Washington, D.C. early in the investigation, but Metropolitan Police advised it was unrelated.

Three weeks after the random, deadly rampage started, police got the information they’d been waiting for.

Officers learned they were looking for two black males in a Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey tags.

That’s when retired Lt. David Reichenbaugh said things got tense in the joint command center.

The former MSP intelligence division operations chief said he was adamant that the information be given to all law enforcement officers as soon as possible. Others, however, argued they shouldn’t let it out.

“I wanted a full court press. I wanted flyers made up and distributed. I wanted everyone to know what we were looking for,” Reichenbaugh said. “But, I was met with real resistance. I told them we’d be burying officers if we held back.”

Not willing to give in, the lieutenant said although he knew what his response would be, he called Col. David Mitchell, then MSP superintendent.

“Without hesitation, he backed me up. He told me he wanted every single barrack notified personally, and he wanted flyers distributed. He wanted Greg Shipley (the MSP PIO) putting it out to the news media. And, as I did, he wanted cops everywhere to know.”

Wojcik spent the next hour calling every barracks in the state with the new info on the car and suspects. Flyers were made up, and troopers were relaying them to various areas of the state.

Reichenbaugh was headed home in Frederick County, and was about to rendezvous with a trooper to hand off flyers when he was advised by the Frederick barracks to switch to another channel on his radio.

A truck driver had just called the barracks, telling him the Chevrolet Caprice he’d heard about on the news was in a rest area on I-70 near Myersville.

At the same time, Wojcik was picking up the phone in the command post to hear MSP Communications Officer Tina Murphy saying: ‘We've got your car.”

While Reichenbaugh sped toward the rest area, and the civilian watched the car from a distance, Wojcik was notifying others of the find. Two troopers from the Frederick barracks and one from Hagerstown were responding there as well to make sure the area was secured.

Over the next few hours, a massive coordinated effort unfolded in the dark of night.

“It was imperative we had the element of surprise. At that point, we didn’t know if the car was occupied, if they were sleeping or if they were lying in wait,” Reichenbaugh said.

The lieutenant, who said he always enjoyed being a road trooper, maintained his composure to command the multi-agency incident. But, he was quick to add that the outcome was successful because the officers set aside their jurisdictional issues.

“I was really worried that news helicopters would show up. So, I called the Secret Service, and they immediately restricted the air space.”

SWAT officers from various federal, state and local agencies were flown in from directions they couldn’t be heard.

Reichenbaugh said a million things were running through his head as the night went on. “I couldn’t believe it. Officers, federal agents, everyone was showing up in shorts, t-shirts, jeans or whatever was beside their beds. I contacted Johnny Hughes, a U.S. Marshal, and told him how dangerous it was, and that they could be shot. We didn’t know who was who. It was dark. Johnny put a stop to it real quick. No one not in uniform was allowed in the area.”

The interstate was shut down, and K-9 teams were in the median. Tractor-trailer drivers were asked to block the entrance and exit of the rest area. “The last thing I wanted was for them to attempt to drive out and have a shootout along I-70."

As the troops were assembling, the national media also was gathering nearby.

Once the plan was established and SWAT teams were in place, a flash bang was set off near the car. The two were taken into custody without incident.

The element of surprise was successful.

Malvo and Muhammad were transported to Montgomery County by state police troopers.

There was no weapon in plain sight, so Reichenbaugh ordered officers to back off until a search warrant was obtained.

It was daylight by the time the officers found the weapon. It was seized, and sent to the ATF lab for testing.

While things were adding up, both veteran troopers said they knew a ballistics test was the only way to confirm it – to tie the weapon to the random shootings.

Wojcik headed for the rest area, and helped coordinate the ongoing investigation. The car was placed in an enclosed trailer and taken back to Montgomery County where an extensive search was conducted.

Following a debriefing at the joint ops center, Reichenbaugh and others headed to the lab. “I watched them do the test firing." It didn’t take long for them to get the results.

The weapon had been used in the random shootings.

The reign of terror was over.

Reichenbaugh said he learned through follow-up investigation that the two were seen picking up cans near the Myersville Elementary School earlier in the day. He suspects they may have been planning to shoot someone there.

Both troopers say while there were bumps and bruises along the way, the snipers were stopped in the end because of shared intelligence.

Reichenbaugh says he supported the execution of Muhammad. “If there was ever a case, this was it. I think justice was served, definitely.”

Malvo, who has been speaking out to media in the past few weeks, is being held on six sentences of life without parole.

Reichenbaugh said he would have sentenced him to death as well.

Although it’s been 10 years, he still thinks about the victims’ families.

“I’m just glad we got the guys responsible, and stopped the grip they had on everyone. We stopped the three weeks of horror.”

 

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