The Inside Story of Snagging the Beltway Snipers: The Killers Get Cornered
December 7, 2018 David Reichenbaugh
This is Part Two of a four-part series on the 2002 Beltway Snipers killing spree in collaboration with the former criminal intelligence operations commander for the Maryland State Police and commanding officer at the scene during the snipers’ capture in Myersville, Md. Read Part One
A little over three weeks of frustration, with the body count mounting, did little to dampen the resolve of the SNIPMUR Task Force. The frustration was real, the sick feelings we all had in the pits of our stomachs over feeling helpless to stop the senseless killings – combined with the fatigue of the nonstop, round-the-clock investigation – had taken a heavy toll on all of us. The public, which we had all taken an oath to serve and protect, were gripped by fear and in some cases panic.
The sniper case had turned into the most intense and largest manhunt in American law enforcement history. The case was being covered on the 24-hour news cycle not only here in the United States but around the world. As I gazed out of one of the windows from our upper-story office building, which had magically been converted into what we knew as the Joint Operations Center (JOC), I was looking at a sea of press.
They had satellite trucks with dishes fully extended as far as the eye could see. They had campers and pop-up canopies set up to cover the even larger sea of cameras and microphones. News people wandered around the press area, which covered more than two blocks. The scene looked more like the coverage for a Super Bowl game rather than an ongoing large-scale homicide investigation. Was it the desire to cover this breaking news event, or was it more of a sense of some morbid reality show that was ratings-driven?
There was one major difference of which the press was likely unaware. The entire area was sealed off and under heavy guard in fear that the snipers would decide to attack the throng of reporters and cameramen and take one or two of them out. As I looked out the window, I noticed the white-noise device that had been set up to vibrate the windows and help prevent the media from using powerful parabolic microphones to pick up conversations that were occurring inside the JOC. Since there had been so many press leaks that had damaged the investigation, this had become a necessity to prevent the press from releasing additional information about the case that would only make our jobs that much more difficult.
Through all this frustration, there was one driving force that motivated all of us: No one involved in this investigation knew how to quit or how to give up. We were determined to work this case to the very end or until it killed us – just like every other investigation I had worked. When the bits and pieces finally started to make sense and began to fit together, it happened quickly.
During the afternoon and into the evening of Oct. 22, 2002, all the pieces fit. We now had the names and faces of our suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. We also knew the vehicle they were most likely driving. We were now ready to start looking for a blue Chevy Caprice. All those lookouts for the infamous rumored white truck or panel van finally had been put behind us. We now could make the transition from the hunted to the hunters. We were no longer looking for a needle in a field full of haystacks. We at least now knew which haystack to look in. The only thing in question was how to go about tracking down the blue Caprice carrying the two killers. There was a ton of debate concerning how much information about the Caprice to release and to whom. At about 10 p.m. on the 22nd, after much debate and consternation, the full be-on-the-lookout for the Caprice was released – not only to every police officer in the DMV, but to the press as well. Within 30 minutes, the lookout for the Caprice was broadcast on every major television station and network as well as radio.
Having completed my assignment and getting an opportunity to go home for the first time in several days, I found myself by luck and happenstance to be the third trooper at the Myersville rest area off of I-70 at the top of South Mountain in Frederick County, Md., where the sniper’s car had been spotted by a citizen. Since I was a lieutenant and highest-ranking trooper on the scene, I was in command by default according to the well-established protocol of the incident command structure.
As I took command of the capture of the Beltway Snipers, there were a million things running through my mind. Most obviously was the simple fact that the snipers were armed with a high-velocity rifle and had repeatedly demonstrated the ability to hit and kill their targets. The rifle they were using would easily penetrate my troopers’ bulletproof vests. The location was dark, a wooded scenic rest area with very poor lighting. I had to be concerned about the potential for a hostage barricade situation as well as a major gunbattle erupting with killers who had the weaponry advantage. I also had to be concerned with the press stumbling into our crime scene either on foot or from the air, and compromising the element of surprise I was trying very hard to maintain.
The great advantage of all federal, state, city and county forces combining was about to be put to the most difficult test of all. We had multiple agencies involved, each with different radio and communication equipment that was not necessarily compatible. There also was the internal power struggle between agencies that was cropping up with the end in sight. These were only some of the factors I had to deal with as the night unfolded. The advantage I had was being surrounded by five or six troopers who all had received the same training that I had. I knew what to expect from them, and they in turn knew what to expect from me.
With the blood up and the adrenaline pumping, we had non-uniformed federal agents arriving on the scene with whom I did not have radio communication. In the dark and with the agents not being in uniform, I feared a friendly-fire incident. If one of these well-intentioned agents was mistaken for one of the killers, the potential for a real tragedy was high. In turn, that would most likely result in the loss of the element of surprise and a full-scale firefight was likely to ensue.
The hours passed slowly while staying in telephone contact with our witness who remained in the rest area as our eyes and ears, dealing with the command staff at the JOC and keeping them up to speed, and working through myriad problems. At approximately 5 a.m., a combined team of special tactics troopers, federal agents and Montgomery County officers were successfully able to approach the Caprice, and safely remove the sleeping killers from the car without having to fire a shot. The snipers’ killing spree had finally been stopped.
In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers by David Reichenbaugh recounts the terrifying crimes through the eyes of one of the few people who know the complete details of the investigation. The book is currently available on Amazon.
David Reichenbaugh's passion for law enforcement started at a very early age which led him to seek a degree in criminal justice. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is a graduate of North Western University Traffic Institute School of Police Staff and Command. David retired after 23 years service with the Maryland State Police as a Lieutenant and Barrack Commander in Cumberland Maryland. David's career started as a road Trooper and continued on as a criminal investigator, undercover narcotics investigator, major violators supervisor, homicide and high profile case investigator, and assisted in the development of the intelligence unit of the MSP post 9/11. He is the author of "In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers."