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

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.

Presented by

James Ross

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

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