The Making, and Unmaking, of D.C. Sniper Lee Boyd Malvo

Exactly 10 years after the murder spree began, a new book helps explain how a good kid turned bad enough to coldly kill one person after another.


There is no excuse for what Lee Boyd Malvo did to all those innocent people 10 years ago. But, like most things in life, there is an explanation for it. And the best explanation I have yet read for the madness that was the Beltway sniper spree can be found in the pages of a fascinating new book, published just last week, by Carmeta Albarus, a mitigation specialist who worked closely for years with Malvo and his defense lawyers following the teenager's 2002 arrest.

The book is called The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo, the D.C. Sniper. It chronicles in great detail the relentless danger and disappointment that Malvo faced before he became wrapped up in John Allen Muhammad's wickedness. And then it presents the ways in which the older man controlled his understudy, controlled him to the point of hypnosis. All the kid wanted was a decent father, and when his own dad failed to be there for him, he allowed another man, a truly evil man, to play the part. The result is a mournful story* with a Shakespearean arc.

To her credit, Albarus tries to play it straight, and the story she tells is a striking one -- not just for the victims who randomly got in the way of Malvo and Muhammad, but for Malvo himself, whose hard life in the Caribbean as a child made him ripe for the older sniper's cruel plan. To say so is not to diminish Malvo's culpability for his crimes, or to diminish the suffering of his victims and their family members, but rather to highlight what it took (what it takes) for a good kid to turn bad enough to coldly murder one person after another.

Treating a child like this doesn't just destroy the child. It destroys society itself.

Muhammad is long gone -- executed in 2009 for his role in the string of murders that paralyzed the Washington-Baltimore corridor in that unforgettable autumn. But Malvo is still with us, age 27 and destined to remain alive in a jail cell for at least another half century. From a Virginia prison last week, he even gave an interview to the Washington Post, which dutifully published Malvo's expression of remorse and regret for what is essentially a wasted life, one that once was full of potential, if not promise, but became a life of sorrow and pain.

Some criminals, it is said, are born. Malvo, it is clear from Albarus' work, was made; his was an avoidable tragedy that would have allowed so many other tragedies to be avoided subsequently. As America marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Beltway attacks -- the first victim, James Martin, was shot October 2, 2002, in a parking lot in Aspen Hill, Maryland -- it is worth remembering the toll of broken homes, and mental illness, and terrible parenting, and the lack of a societal safety net.

A father lost, a "father" found. That's how Albarus structures her book. She posits that Malvo suffered from "reactive attachment disorder." What is that? Here's one definition:

Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which infants and young children don't establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers. A child with reactive attachment disorder is typically neglected, abused, or orphaned. Reactive attachment disorder develops because the child's basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing aren't met, and loving, caring attachments with others are never established. This may permanently change the child's growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.

Through interviews with his friends and family and teachers, Albarus tells us that Malvo was essentially a sweet kid who had decency and compassion and support and security and affection snatched from him over and over again, at virtually every point in his formative years when it might have made a difference in his life. In prison, after it became clear that he would never be executed for his crimes, Malvo began to write a journal, portions of which Albarus shares with her readers. What was his aim? Albarus tells us:

[H]e hoped that his story would be a lesson to fathers and sons, to mothers who have to be both mother and father, and to youth who are sometimes blinded by what they want to see rather than what they should be seeing.

His father, with whom he had formed an intense bond, ultimately abandoned him, refusing even to save him from an abusive mother. That woman, straight out of a novel, could not properly care for him, but refused to let others who could pull him out of his cycle of despair. Is there anything sadder in life or literature than a poor boy constantly seeking to find his negligent father? Is there anything sadder than a child being beaten by his own mother? We no longer need to imagine what that kind of treatment can do to an impressionable mind. We know.

We know -- and yet we are confronted again in this case with a form of cognitive dissonance that runs through many stories of life and death and crime and punishment. How can Malvo be a victim when he victimized so many others? Why should anyone feel sorry for a murderer, a young man who day after day allowed himself to be used as an instrument of death? These are reasonable questions to ask, and they brook no universal answers. But I dare you to read this book and not feel sorry for Malvo, and not feel anger toward all the adults who let him down, and not root for those precious few who tried vainly to help.

So now what? We have the victims and their family members whose lives were forever altered by what Malvo did and allowed to be done. And we have a repentant young man locked away in a prison cell, claiming (to Albarus) that he wishes he could do more, wishes he could do something, to try to put to right the damage he caused. He cannot. But perhaps his life may serve as a warning, to fathers and mothers everywhere, that treating a child like this doesn't just destroy the child, it destroys society itself. And if that message gets through to just one family, or just to one reader, Albarus will have accomplished something very great indeed.

*The book also contains a forensic analysis of Malvo by Dr. Jonathan H. Mack. This clinical work is interesting not just because of what it concludes about Malvo but because it offers a sense of how these sorts of reviews relate to criminal cases generally.