How the DC snipers hacked an ex-police car to make a killing machine

102802muhammadjohnmalvojohn.jpgI just watched a fascinating and deeply disturbing documentary on CNN that explained how the infamous DC snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, turned a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice (which, ironically, was a used police car) into a hacked killing machine. Here's an excerpt from the transcript of the show, called Minds of the D.C. Snipers (the original air date was October 2007):
It was a customized killing machine, darker than normal tinting on the back windows. The firewall between the trunk and the rear seat removed, allowing the snipers to lie down and crawl into the trunk, as in this FBI recreation. Half of the inside trunk lid was sprayed with blue paint to prevent light from bouncing off when raised. The car's battery was rigged to run a stolen laptop computer with map software to make killing locations easy to find. And this is the view that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had when they pulled the trigger.
Malvo, who was only 17 at the time of the killings, is serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison. Muhammad, 48, will be executed on November 10th.


  1. “It’s got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, it’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas. What do you say, is it the new Bluesmobile or what?”
    — Dan Aykroyd as “Elwood Blues” in The Blues Brothers

  2. Not exactly what I would call a killing machine…

    You could also use such a car for say…bird watching or catching cheating spouses.

    The choice, as they say, is yours.

  3. I’m sure there’s more comfortable ways of watching birds–and ones with better fields of view. After all, what’s unobtrusive to a bird and unobtrusive to a human are two very different things.

  4. Workmanlike hacks, but not exactly rocket science.

    Just goes to show how much disruption that two people can create if they set their minds to it.

    In a country of 300,000,000 people, I’m truly surprised such instances of terroristic violence don’t occur far more often. These guys were basically outliers almost 6 standard deviations away from the mean; after marinating in America’s fear-based culture, ones intuition about such things tends to skew towards assuming that terroristically violent people would be FAR more common.

    Thinking about it, this kind of restores your faith in human nature: just about anybody *could* do this, but far fewer than than one in a million actually do. Wow!

  5. @Kerov – I am in 100% agreement with you. The vast vast majority of people are good. If you can keep shelter over people’s heads and food in their bellies that number continues to increase exponentially. You will live a better, happier life if you accept that.

  6. That’s a helpful perspective, Kerov: most people are basically good. It sure was unnerving as a pedestrian on the streets of DC during the weeks those guys were shooting people at random. I wouldn’t want to go through that on a regular basis. Plus, everyone was looking for a white van, not a blue Chevy Caprice.

  7. I live in one of the neighborhoods terrorized Muhammad and Malvo in October 2002. The randomness of the shootings so close to home and at grocery stores and gas stations we used made this a very scary time for us and our children (as evidenced by the six blog posts I wrote about it during that month: ).

    Kerov, your perspective is interesting. And thank goodness we don’t have more of these instances. However, it reminds me that “healthy paranoia” is sometimes warranted in this country.

  8. We are being no different than they were…they saw the average citizen as a threat to their brethren, just as we see them…they acted in a totally understandable way by their lights and should not be executed.

    Considering the million or so that Bush killed and got away with, they should be given very easy sentences.

    They are not criminals, but soldiers of Islam. Soldiers may be held in prisons, but not executed.

  9. I’m with Outofcontext. It wasn’t just DC that was terrorized by those two back then. They cased areas as far north as Baltimore and targeted as far south as Richmond. When they were finally caught, they had been casing schools in Frederick. No one in the area was safe. It was a very, very scary few weeks.

  10. I hate to disagree but the D.C. Sniper is not 1 in a million. We can’t forget the hundreds of thousands of cases of inter-family violence. Kids killing parents for no good reason, or parents killing kids. Plus we have the infamous serial killers who kill for pleasure, and lets not forget the organized crime killings where life is snuffed out for dimes and cents. I don’t think I just can’t see it quite easily that people are good natured. Many of us are but as a whole or mass not necessarily.

  11. I live in the area that the Columbus, Ohio sniper shot a house in – he was caught because of a visit to the gas station a couple blocks from my house. My only point in saying that is: it’s still not necessary to have paranoia. Even with someone shooting cars and people at random, the instance of violence is so low. Plus, with a random shooter like that, what is paranoia going to do for you?

  12. @outtacontext and travelina: I’m sorry for the stress and fear that you went though, and it’s understandable why you felt that way. But the fear and stress itself was unfounded. The danger of getting sniped was astronomically overstated – even with the limited information available at the time. In fact, when walking down the street you should probably have been a lot more paranoid about getting killed or maimed by a reckless or elderly driver.

    Actually, you should still be paranoid about that when walking down the street. But I’m guessing you’re not – at least I’m certainly not. Why is that? Was the fear and stress caused by the snipers, or by the hysterical terrorist-phobic media reaction?

  13. As crazy as the story is, the craziest part is that Muhammed started killing all of these people, so he could kill his ex-wife, and it would look like she was just a random victim of the sniper.

  14. So now the terrorists are using…shudder…automobiles. Well there goes any chance of taking an automobile onto a commercial airplane flight! Thanks a lot, Malvo.

  15. I’d say the gun was the killing machine. But the headline writer seems drawn to the idea of making the cops somehow party to the violence.

    If there weren’t cop cars there wouldn’t be criminals riding around in ex-cop cars, right?

  16. The fact that it was a cop car was only relevant insofar as it was a vehicle with a big trunk and a roomy back seat. Again, I like the perspective of Kerov. It’s good to think that in a country of 300,000,000, only two of them did this.

  17. When cars are outlawed only outlaws will have cars?

    (OK, got that out of my system.)

    I’m not about to commit random acts of violence, mostly because I know right from wrong. And I’m “normal” – in the true, statistical sense of the term.

    Still, I am very able to imagine a large range of things to do to cause anything from massive economic disruption to mass-fatality calamities. As, I suspect, are many if not most people.

    Oddly, none of them involve the sorts of pointy things that are now unwelcome on airplanes. That sort of thing, it’s possible to do with a standard ignition key.

    Hat-tip to Bruce Schneier for the term “security theater”.

  18. “The car’s battery was rigged to run a stolen laptop computer” — rigged? careful, you might catch something with all that baited breath.

    1. @douchsniper: yeah it takes a truly evil, devious criminal mind to “rig” the cigarette lighter to run a laptop power supply.

      Personally, I blame it all on big tobacco.

  19. @outtacontext: I also live in the area that was “terrorized” by Malvo and Muhammad, and caught quite a bit of flack from neighbors for continuing life as normal (took the kids to the pumpkin patch, playgrounds, stuff like that). The odds of being targeted were so astronomical, I figured it was much safer to go outside and play than to, say, drive on the beltway.

  20. I am still perturbed at the post arrest Greek Chorus of cable news saying the snipers were not very smart..we know why they picked up that cry, don’t we? i swear it turned on dime, after photo of John M was out.

    1. Well he wasn’t very smart was he? The guy was much more crazy than anything. I know you’re implying that the media is racist, saying that a serial killer was “smart” when they thought he was white (which the VAST number of serial killers are for some reason) and then decided he was dumb when the killer turned out to be black. I personally question why the media ever thought the serial killer was smart to begin with. It certainly doesn’t take many brain cells to shoot someone. Just the motive, means, and opportunity.

      Personally, I’m surprised there hasn’t been talk that Bush, The Government, the Illuminati, Zeta Reticulians, or Gay Jewish Martians framed Muhammad and Malvo because driving around shooting people from the trunk of a car is way too difficult for anyone to actually do without advanced CIA training with reversed engineered UFO nano-thermite or something.

  21. My sister-in-law went to high school with John Lee Malvo and said it was very creepy to find out he’d been one of the snipers because he seemed like a pretty normal kid. Quiet and shy, asked her out once, but no hint that he was capable of that. From what I’ve heard he probably wouldn’t have been either if he hadn’t met Muhammed.

  22. Since this is my first time posting on Boing Boing, I wanted to explain that I didn’t put the quotes around “terrorize” to be snarky; I’m just not sure that it fit my (admittedly personal) view that terrorism is larger-scale than what we experienced. My apologies to Outtacontext.

  23. zikzak and Marnsten, statistics are statistics and sometimes they don’t really mean much in the middle of trauma. I didn’t hole my family up in our house during that time and certainly both my wife and I worked hard to not unduly frighten our children. But this crime spree did have its effect on us and our community.

    The fear and stress was not unfounded. It was a very human response to something that seemed so random.

    1. @outtacontext: For sure, there’s an unavoidable sense of fear and panic when we realize a stranger is randomly killing people. And I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to feel completely indifferent about that. But it is reasonable to ask people to keep a cool head and consider the situation in full context.

      After all, misunderstanding dangers leads to all sorts of problems in society, from persecution of the homeless to refusing vaccinations. We all have to do our part to combat that.

  24. Let’s remember these guys the next time we hear that crap out Bush keeping America safe from terrorist for eight years (except for that one time, and also the anthrax).

  25. These guys weren’t terrorists. Just serial killers. If you want to call them terrorists…you’d have to call any serial killer a terrorist.
    Not to say their crimes didn’t frighten a community for days and days…but so did Son of Sam and the Green River Killer.

  26. They’re like Bizarro World Makers.

    Hate to be a spoiler, but the twist at the end of the story is that you’re in Bizarro World!

  27. @Outtacontext: I get and agree with your well-written response #27. In a way, I think the point I’m clumsily trying to make is similar – we’re scared of what we’re scared of, statistics be damned. My neighbors were understandably afraid of the snipers and responded accordingly. And I religiously avoid the beltway, although odds are strongly in favor of my surviving a trip to Tyson’s Corner.

  28. That’s not a killing machine, that’s a glorified duck blind.

    The gun, on the other hand, was a killing machne.

  29. My first car was a 1990 Chevy Caprice. It was white rather than blue and it wasn’t a cop car originally. That thing was a boat. You didn’t really park it, you docked it. It accelerated better from 80km/h and up than from 0-80km/h. And it was terrible on gas for city driving. There was tons of trunk space though.

  30. As a truck driver who’s been all over the US and parts of Canada for the past 5 years, I can say that yes, most of us are all pretty much the same. We might talk a little differently from region to region or have different favorite foods or bands, but we’re all pretty similar. We just want to do well in life, find some love and success and be able to do the things we want. Assholes like the DC snipers are extremely rare because the sickness they are afflicted with is extremely rare. We all get angry now and then, and maybe some of us think about violent things from time to time. But there’s a huge chasm of a difference between that and what those guys did. They modded a car and thought their little project through with all the casual enjoyment of a hobby woodworker building his wife a spice rack.

    So think about how similar we all are, next time you start complaining about the stupid southerners/northerners/west coast/east coast/whoever the hell you like to complain about.

  31. I was serving a mission for the LDS church in Northern Virginia at the time the D.C. sniper was out killing. We were pretty much outside all day every day, but the paradigm you’re in as a missionary renders you fearless to snipers and about anything else. Or maybe it was that we secretly welcomed death as an alternative to knocking on more doors?

    I remember that people were scared out of their minds during all this. People would not want to open their doors (well, not a lot of people want to open their doors to “the mormons” anyway, but it was worse than usual) – and people thought we were crazy to be outside.

    There were about 200 missionaries in our area – covering everything from the river down to Fredericksburg and over into small parts of west virginia. Apparently the church HQ was getting a lot of calls from worried parents about their missionary sons and daughters who were outside all day knocking doors and street contacting. They called an emergency meeting and got all the missionaries together to talk about it, and send out a note to the parents that they were taking “special precautions” with the missionaries in the area.

    In our meeting, they gave us a little training on how to dodge sniper bullets. I’m not sure who came up with this idea, but I’m confident that there is nobody with any sort of tactical training in the leadership of the church, and nobody who has ever seen a sniper on TV before. Our instructions were to “bob up and down and sway back and forth slowly” when we got out of the car for gas – and both of us were supposed to get out of the car rather than just one of us (we were always in pairs). Really. That was it. “Special Precautions.”

    So that’s it. Just in case you were wondering – dancing around like a chicken and making a general ass of yourself makes you invulnerable to sniper fire. I imagined some guy in the back of a white van bobbing is gun around in frustration cursing those damn mormons and their matrix-like bullet dodging abilities.

    I was never dumb enough to do the little dance. I thought “if I’m going out then I’m going out with a shred of dignity, dammit!”

  32. I know it’s going to show me up as an out of towner but that last line was a real shocker. “will be *executed*” ?! What the hell?

  33. One day I went to pick up my son from his Bethesda, MD school during all this and he ran to the car in an an odd, zigzag pattern. He explained matter-of-factly, as he opened the door, that he figured he’d be a harder target for the sniper this way (two of the shootings, at White Flint Mall and at a gas station, took place less than three miles from our house). These shootings had a huge effect on DC area kids. I hope they’ll all be OK.

Comments are closed.