When the D.C. Snipers Came to Hang Out at the YMCA

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In the fall of 2002, two mysterious visitors showed up at the Silver Spring center and quickly became part of the community. A member looks back at a month of terror and astonishment.

snipers-top.jpgJohn Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were charged with killing 10 people in the Beltway sniper attacks. (Reuters)

The YMCA I go to is a hospitable place that celebrates diversity in all of its manifestations. The Young Men's Christian Association was once, true to its name, a male Christian bastion with strict rules -- for instance, turning away prospective members and employees with tattoos. Today, among our ranks, I often see both lifeguards and members whose brightly colored body art resembles Diego Rivera murals. One day, I saw a tattooed woman at the opposite end of the pool wearing a bathing suit that blended so well with her tattoos that it appeared as if she were about to jump in the pool naked.

I have to admit, I may be somewhat less open to diversity than a lot of other members. Ten years ago, on September 25, 2002, I saw two men resting in an older car in the Y parking lot, and I had a visceral reaction to seeing these strangers there. One was snoozing in the driver's seat. The other was sitting in the back seat with his legs propped up on the back of the passenger's seat. One doesn't often see people sleeping in a car in the Y parking lot. That was what bothered me, I told myself. The fact that they were black was irrelevant.

At first, I shrugged it off and went on my way. But well over an hour later, when I re-emerged from the Y, they hadn't changed their positions. I deviated from my course and headed toward their car. I was about to ask, "Are you guys okay?" -- a question with the subtext, "What the hell are you guys doing here?" -- but something told me to stay away. In keeping with the spirit of our YMCA, I told myself that these days the Good Shepherd is often told to mind his own business. Privacy matters. So I made a beeline back to my car and drove to the office.

I felt like a real bigot a week later when the two black men I'd seen dozing in the car had been thoroughly integrated into the life of the Y. They'd been admitted under the Y's national "away" program, which allows members from visiting Y's to get a certain number of free or discounted visits. Nobody clearly understood the relationship between the two men, but they gave the impression they were father and son. It was inspiring to see such a strong, positive relationship between a black man and his son, especially given that many of the younger black men in our area had been raised by single mothers.

The two men appeared regularly in the small men's locker room and quickly formed connections throughout the YMCA. JoAnn, who was about to finalize her divorce, began flirting with the father and had the clear impression he was reciprocating. She started radiating the confidence that comes with a budding new relationship. Ben and others regularly spotted, or were spotted by, the father or the son on the free weights. There's no better way to earn the trust of a weight lifter than to save him from a crushing weight he can no longer handle. Larry, a retired minister who had spent most of his career in Latin America, talked regularly with the son and showed the him how to use a combination lock to secure his valuables. As much as anyone, the two newcomers participated in the daily banter in the locker room.

One day, after dropping off her son at day care, Mary ran full force into the arms of the visiting father. His warm embrace gave her a feeling of great consolation.

The bonds between members intensified on October 2, 2002, when the D.C. snipers began their killing spree just a few miles from the Y. The local media recommended that people outside run in a zigzag stutter step, especially en route to and from their cars, to render them harder targets for the gunmen. Whenever I watched all the people running through my office parking lot in a crazy zigzag pattern, I thought of a Nazi-era Charlie Chaplin film.

My wife, whose job required her to travel from one school to another in the area where most of the killings occurred, was terrified and employed the stutter step wherever she went. She worried that my going to the Y made me a sitting duck because it was surrounded by a woodsy area and directly abutted the Beltway. I insisted that if I was safe anywhere, I was safe at the Y. Those of us who kept going there told each other there was no place we could be safer.

Around us, the D.C. area went on lockdown. One day, my wife arrived at one of her schools less than an hour after a nearby sniper killing. She zigzagged from her car to the building, found it locked, and banged on the door. She shouted her name and said she was there for a scheduled meeting. Someone opened the door a few inches, told her they could not let anyone in, and instructed her to go somewhere safe. Then the door slammed in her face. She ran back to her car without a stutter step and drove off, furious that she'd been turned away.

Similar stories repeated daily throughout the city. Police developed a profile of the killers. Because the snipers were skilled marksmen, investigators believed they were either foreign terrorists or middle-aged white men with years of shooting experience. Cops set up traffic stops throughout the city. A close friend of mine, Jack, a Vietnam vet, was pulled over and interrogated because he fit the profile as a white middle-aged vet. The city teetered on the brink of martial law.

Meantime, the two visitors became part of the mutual support network that developed at the YMCA. Many members who had children at the childcare building were frightened of dropping them off and picking them up. One day, after dropping off her son, Mary rushed to the main building, threw open the back door, and ran full force into the welcoming arms of the visiting father. She said his embrace felt warm and gave her a feeling of great "consolation." For three more weeks, the D.C. snipers continued their rampage. They carried out most of their killings within a few miles of the Y.

Then a new pattern of killings changed the way the public perceived the snipers. Up till that time, several adults had been killed in the open, each with a single bullet. But on October 7, the snipers moved to a schoolyard in Bowie where they shot and maimed a middle school boy. They left behind a tarot card inscribed with the words, "Dear policeman, I am God" -- possibly their new trademark. ="#.ugbrz0qvs00">

Next, the snipers moved south and killed two folks an hour and a half away in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While the pause in local slaughter offered a moment of relief, the terror was now spreading over a larger area. Our compassion for the victims seemed stretched, if not diluted, by the miles. We also feared we might be dealing with copycat killers. And the world was watching via the media, mesmerized and terrified.

I was at the Y when they found and arrested the snipers. The two men were captured on October 24 when someone spied them sitting in their 1990 blue Caprice -- the same one I'd seen over a month earlier -- on Route 70, snoozing at a truck stop on the way to West Virginia. One sat at the wheel and the other sat in the back seat with his legs propped up on the back of the passenger's seat, just as they'd been that September day in the Y parking lot, a week before they began their local killing binge. Police found a rifle in their car, and ballistics tests linked it to the sniper shootings.

News of the snipers' capture spread quickly at the Y as people arrived and shared what they'd heard on their car radios. What sunk in far more slowly was the revelation that we'd been in the company of these killers day in and day out. They'd been coming to the Y between killings and stashing their belongings in the men's fitness center locker room I used. JoAnn felt jilted. Larry remarked that Malvo had seemed like such a nice kid, "more polite than most." George spoke for many of us when he said, "I can tell you what they both look like naked."

For my own part, when I realized who I'd been playing with for the past month, I felt a cold chill deep in my gut. It's a feeling I associated with being caught in the act or discovering that a loved one has been badly injured or diagnosed with a terminal illness. That feeling is always hard to expel. I felt a strong urge to scream. I don't think I was alone.

But the reassurance I'd given my wife turned out to be right. I was safe at the Y because the snipers had made it their own safe haven -- the place where they took a break from killing and enjoyed a few hours of camaraderie, exercise, and rest.

Since then, it's crossed my mind that, had I done something -- anything at all -- when I first saw the two men in the Y parking lot, the course of history might have played out a little differently. After they were caught, I tried several times to call the Montgomery County Police Department's sniper tip line, simply to tell them that I'd seen the snipers a week before the local bloodshed started. I thought it might be helpful for the police to know precisely when the snipers started hanging out at the Y, but I also simply wanted to unburden myself. I could never get through. Perhaps they stopped staffing the hotline as soon as the snipers were captured.

My wife points out that had I spoken to the two men that September day, I might have ended up being taken in by them and hiring them to work for me, administering surveys in local schools. She may have been right. Eventually, I read that John Muhammed boasted that their ultimate objective had been to get into schools, where they could kill hundreds all at once. By not saying anything to them when I first saw them, perhaps I avoided becoming caught in their web and facilitating far greater horror. That thought visits me now and then.

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James Ross

Jim Ross is a public health researcher in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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