20 years after Beltway snipers, ATF leader says new tech could have cracked case sooner

If current technology had been around 20 years ago, Beltway snipers likely would have been caught sooner, says Michael Bouchard, who led the ATF sniper investigation.

As the 20-year anniversary of the Beltway Sniper shooting approaches, the man who led the investigation at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says new technology likely would have stopped shootings sooner.

Over a three-week period in October 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot 10 people to death and wounded three others in Maryland, Virginia, and DC.

At the time, Michael Bouchard was the ATF special agent in charge during the sniper investigation, as the agency’s field office chief in Baltimore. Bouchard often appeared during news conferences with then-Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose and Gary Bald, the agent leading the FBI task force efforts.

(LR) ATF Special Agent in Charge Michael Bouchard, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose and FBI Special Agent in Charge Gary Bald attend a news conference on October 24, 2002 in Rockville, Maryland. Chief Moose announced that an arrest warrant has been issued for John Allen Mohammed, also known as John Allen Williams. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

“Ballistics was crucial in solving this case,” Bouchard told WTOP. He also said that technology that has been invented since the rampage would likely have allowed law enforcement to more quickly identify, find and arrest Muhammad and Malvo.

At first, the public was informed that the shootings appeared to be related. The first shooting occurred on October 2, 2002, when James Martin was shot in Montgomery County. The next day, James Buchanan, Premkumar Walekar, Sarah Ramos, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera were also shot to death in Montgomery County, and Pascal Charlot was killed in DC near the Maryland line.

“In many cases we were able to recover identifiable projectiles from the victims, which were compared each time we had a shooting to previous shootings,” Bouchard said.

“We also found spent shell casings at some of the scenes, and when we examined them through the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network, we were able to determine that the spent shell casings came from the same rifle.”

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At crime scenes, Bouchard said ATF agents also worked on trajectory analysis.

“We looked at each scene and tried to determine the angle from which the shot was fired, which also allowed us to determine the distances from which the firearm was fired.”

A hole is seen in the trunk of the Caprice used by snipers. (WTOP File/Paul D. Shinkman)

Identifying the suspects

In 2002, the sniper task force scrambled to apprehend whoever was shooting, apparently at random, throughout the National Capital Region.

“The software that law enforcement was using to connect the dots with intelligence and information that was available through various departments was pretty sparse,” Bouchard said. “There is now new software that allows law enforcement to quickly collect information and quickly share it with multiple jurisdictions. That would have been a great help to us 20 years ago.”

Gunshot detection technology is more prevalent now, in which sensors in a jurisdiction can quickly detect gunshots and point police to where the sound emanated.

“They can respond more quickly to a scene when a shot is fired, rather than waiting for someone to call,” Bouchard said.

“If it had been available to us 20 years ago, that could have helped with a quicker police response to some of the shootings, and possibly could have apprehended Muhammad and Malvo much quicker,” he said.

In addition, gunshot detection systems are linked with the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network, providing more information in a single format that can be shared across agencies.

“So when you examine a spent shell or shell, it shows here where it was fired, this is the type of weapon, and this is the type of firearm that may have been used,” Bouchard said.

In the two decades since the Beltway Sniper shootings, Bouchard said the forensic examiner’s basic role has remained largely the same: link bullets to weapons and to the person who fired them.

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However, there are so many television shows that deal with forensic science that when a case goes to trial, prosecutors and the forensic examiner can anticipate the questions that jurors might have.

“For example, ‘Why didn’t you find fingerprints on a test?’ It’s up to the examiner to say how difficult it is to find fingerprints,” Bouchard said. “Or, I’ve seen this on TV, ‘Why couldn’t you have made up your mind to identify a firearm?'”

Bouchard said it would be up to the examiner to explain that a projectile may have been too damaged to match another case.

closing the book

On the morning of October 24, 2002, Muhammad and Malvo were arrested at a rest stop on Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland.

Muhammad and Malvo slept in a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey plates. A hole was cut in the back of the trunk.

Also in the car was a Bushmaster rifle.

The .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle that had been used in each attack by Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo was found in the trunk of the car when they were arrested. (Courtesy FBI)

“We compared that rifle to all the expended shell casings and projectiles that were identifiable, and that allowed us to conclusively link all the shots,” Bouchard said.

“The murder weapon used in all of these cases that was terrorizing the DC metro area had been seized and the people responsible for the shootings were under arrest,” he said.

Muhammad was convicted of capital murder in Virginia and was executed in 2009. Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, has been convicted of murders in Maryland and Virginia and is serving multiple life sentences.

The Maryland Supreme Court ruled that Malvo should serve his life sentence without the possibility of parole reconsideration in Montgomery County, due to recent US Supreme Court rulings on life sentences for minors. Attorney General Brian Frosh is considering appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court.

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