Earlier I profiled two pairs of serial killers whose relationships were almost like fathers and sons. But perhaps the most widely known case of a father/son style pair of killers is the DC (or Beltway) Snipers.
The case of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo is unusual for a number of reasons — the first being that they didn’t fit into any category neatly. At one point, they were serial killers, taking multiple lives one at a time, with a cooling off period in between. Months later, they became spree killers, killing two or more victims in two or more locations.
It wasn’t until the two were captured that investigators began to piece together the complicated relationship between the two. Muhammad had often claimed Malvo as his son, and the two certainly acted like a father and son. But it wasn’t true — at least not biologically.
Malvo was only 14 when he met the much older Muhammad in Antigua. Malvo, originally from Jamaica, came from a poor family, raised by a single mother, and moved around a lot. But he was known to be a good student and a bit of a clown to everyone who knew him. His mother introduced him to Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran who was hiding in Antigua with his three kidnapped children. There, Muhammad made his living creating forged documents, and Malvo’s mother made a deal with him: in exchange for fronting her some forged immigration papers so she could work in the US, she would then send him the money once she found a job. Muhammad was to keep Malvo as “collateral” on the loan.
But just as he did with his biological children, Muhammad isolated Malvo from his mother. Having felt abandoned by both of his parents, the young Malvo looked on Muhammad as an adopted father.
Muhammad converted the boy to Islam and began having him do calesthenics and other physical training. At night, he made Malvo and his children listen to Nation of Islam propaganda and self-help recordings. He began training him in the use of firearms.
Malvo began to change. The once affable boy became argumentative — specifically about religion — to the point that it was disrupting the classroom. Eventually he just stopped showing up.
In 2001, the authorities were beginning to close in on Muhammad. So he took his three children and Malvo (using forged papers, of course) and flew back to the US. There, Malvo reunited with his mother, while the Muhammads flew into Washington state.
In the US, Malvo enrolled in high school, and like he had in the Caribbean, made good grades. Muhammad, however, was having very different luck. After enrolling his children in school, the authorities were alerted. They took the children and returned them to their mother, who quickly relocated to the DC area in order to remain in hiding from the ex-husband she feared.
Friends say he suffered a kind of emotional or mental breakdown, crying for days and obsessing on trying to find his ex-wife and children. Then Malvo showed up at the homeless shelter where he was staying.
Muhammad began introducing Malvo as his son. When Malvo wasn’t in school, Muhammad continued Malvo’s intense physical training, and they would spend hours target shooting with the Bushmaster AR 15 that Muhammad kept with him at all times. Even their “fun” was centered around watching war movies or playing first-person shooter games.
Other residents and staff at the homeless shelter noticed that Muhammad seemed to totally dominate the boy, not allowing him out of his sight or to speak with anyone else. He even controlled the boy’s diet. At night, Muhammad made Malvo listen to propaganda tapes — but instead of religious or self-help messages, these tapes were recordings of radical speeches encouraging a race war. For all intents and purposes, the older man was brainwashing the younger, impressionable teen.
At one point, after many tries, Malvo’s mother finally got through on a phone call, but Muhammad wouldn’t let her speak to her son. He reportedly told her, “I’ve got a job to do, and I can’t rely on some cokehead to do it.”
The intensive daily training, including techniques to “harden” the teen so as to be able to endure interrogation, came to its fruition on Feb. 16, 2002. That’s when Malvo earned his “rite of passage” by knocking on Isa Nichols’ door. Nichols had apparently encouraged Muhammad’s wife to leave him because of his abuse.
When Nichols’ niece, Keenya Cook, answered the door, Malvo shoved a borrowed .45-caliber pistol in her face and pulled the trigger.
Cook’s murder would be the first of many: between February and October 2002, the two drifted around the country, staying in shelters and killing and robbing people randomly. Police believe one or both of them killed seven people and wounded four in at least five states. Some of them were killed in an MO that would soon become chillingly familiar: long-distance shots, seemingly at random, with a rifle.
But then, starting in October, the pair stopped wandering aimlessly and began to carry out a plan. Muhammad told Malvo the plan was to terrorize the DC area, then demand $10 million from the US government. They would use that money to open a school to train young men and women in Islamic religion and values, then send them out as missionaries (or terrorists) to the world.
Others think this was simply a story the older man told to get the younger man to accept what they were going to do. The real plan, many believe, was to target Muhammad’s ex-wife and make her murder look like one of many random murders. Then Muhammad would gain custody of his children.
Regardless, the two modified Muhammad’s 1990 Chevy Caprice (purchased with money they had stolen from a restaurant owner) so that the back seat could fold down and a person could lay down partially in the trunk. The hood of the trunk had a small hole drilled into it, just big enough to fit the barrel of the rifle and a sight.
Their MO was to cruise around randomly, looking for a good place to pick off victims. They would park nearby, where Malvo would climb into the back and take aim with the rifle. Muhammad would sit in the driver’s seat, acting as lookout. On his command, Malvo would fire. Then Muhammad would simply drive away. By the time bystanders would realize what happened, the blue Caprice would be far away.
Early on the morning of Oct. 2, a round was fired into a Michael’s craft store in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Thankfully no one was hurt. But only a short time later, in Wheaton, Maryland, 55-year-old James Martin was shot in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse.
The next day, Oct. 3, five people in and around Silver Spring, Maryland, were killed. All of them were outside in busy commercial areas, shopping, pumping gas, and just going about their daily lives. All of them were shot with a .223-caliber rifle. Police and the public went into a panic.
Within days, the FBI had 400 agents around the country working the case and set up a toll-free tip line.
Over the course of the month of October, Muhammad and Malvo would murder a total of 10 people and injure three more. They began leaving clues, like the Death card from a Tarot deck, as well as a ransom note asking for $10 million. At one point, one of them actually called the FBI and took credit for a shooting in Alabama. Agents in Alabama gathered the evidence in that case and took it to the DC office for analysis. Fingerprint analysis led them to Malvo, and through Malvo, to Muhammad. They saw that Muhammad had a blue 1990 Chevy Caprice registered in his name, so that car’s info was blasted out to law enforcement and the general public.
They were finally captured when a truck driver reported seeing a blue Chevy Caprice with New Jersey plates parked at a rest area near I-70 in Maryland. The two were sleeping in the car; they surrendered without incident.
The two each stood trial separately in Virginia and Maryland for the shootings.
In the fall of 2003, at their Virginia trials, Muhammad and Malvo were each found guilty of two counts of murder and weapons charges. The jury in Muhammad’s case recommended that he be sentenced to death, while Malvo’s jury recommended life in prison without parole. However, in 2017, his sentence was overturned after an appeal.
In 2006, in Maryland, Malvo pleaded guilty to six murders and confessed to several others in other states while testifying against Muhammad. Under questioning, he confessed more of their plans and claimed he had not been the only trigger man.
He was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
On May 30, 2006, the jury found Muhammad guilty of six counts of murder in Maryland. He was sentenced to six life terms without possibility of parole.
Muhammad was executed in Virginia in 2009.