How a Washington Post reporter crossed paths with one of the ‘Beltway Snipers’

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo's sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area and beyond. Josh White interviewed Malvo for a commemorative feature that ran in The Washington Post this past weekend, and one moment in it begged to be unpacked a little bit:

When prompted, Malvo remembered crossing paths with a Post reporter in Ashland [Va.] in 2002. Malvo said he remembered a green car turning into a hotel parking lot as light rain began to fall — “You almost hit me,” he recalled — and how he was scurrying toward the wood line to pick up a duffel bag he had hidden away.

He said he wandered up to the news conferences that night in a brightly colored sweater and spoke to police officers and others, asking what was going on. He called it “intelligence collection” and said he did the same thing at other scenes.

I reached White via email in Europe, where he is vacationing. He explained his inadvertent brush with Malvo:

When I arrived in Ashland that night, I had just driven down from Washington, D.C., and had never gotten off at that exit before, so I didn't really know exactly where I was headed. I noticed the press tent set up and looked for the nearest place I could park, which was a hotel parking lot just across the road and down a bit from the Ponderosa. It was dark and it was just starting to rain.

As I pulled into the lot, I noticed an African American teenager sort of jogging into the parking lot, which at the time seemed to me an effort to get out of the rain. He sort of dodged out of the way of my car, I parked, and then he kept going, looking back for a second before going toward the corner of the hotel.

We were all in a state of heightened awareness at that point, and a couple of things seemed out of place to me: His age, the direction he was running, and the fact that he had a bright, multicolored sweater on (it was raining, and pretty cold). After their arrest, and seeing Malvo's photo, I thought it was possible that was him that night. For the past decade, I had always wondered if that was, in fact, him, as we know law enforcement officials and experts believe some criminals visit the scenes of their crimes. So I had to ask him about it.

When I asked him about this, he remembered dodging the car. It's partly because the car I drove at the time -- a "Caribbean green" Toyota Celica -- was an unusual color and definitely stuck out. I asked him what he was wearing that night, and he independently told me that he was wearing the sweater I remembered seeing. He also said he was running through the lot to get a duffel bag he had stashed in the woods.

And then he expanded the story to say that he also later went up to the press conference and asked people questions about the crime, as a curious onlooker. He called that "intelligence collection" and said they did it at multiple scenes.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Bill McKelway wrote a look back this past weekend as well. And, of course, the story began the undoing of Jayson Blair, who was covering it for The New York Times. Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP has a multimedia slide show reviewing its coverage.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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