Three weeks in October

by William Smith. 0 Comments

I'm sitting here in front of the television watching the coverage of the pursuit of the suspect in the bombing at the Boston Marathon earlier this week and am reminded of the tight grip in which the Beltway Snipers held us back in October 2002.

John Muhammad and Lee Malvo had everyone on edge as they drove around the Washington DC area over a period of three weeks, shooting people at random. Anyone outside was a possible target. Children, men, women – everyone and anyone. Whether one was pumping gas, going to the store, walking to school or any outdoor activity, there was the possibility that a person, no matter how unlikely, could be the next target.

Being a person who craves endorphins and loves bicycling, I found time in my work schedule to ride my bike on an 18-mile route south of Frederick several days each week during lunch, supplemented by riding to work on the other days. Weather-permitting, I was out there on the roads almost every day. I remember riding along New Design Rd one afternoon. There were no other automobiles around as far as I could see. From behind came a white panel van – if you recall, at that time it was thought that the perpetrators were driving one of those, rather than a brown Oldsmobile, (I think that's what it was) from inside which they were actually hunting us. I thought to myself, “This could be it.” I watched the van in my mirror as it approached. It slowed and passed me very carefully, which set my heart racing. The driver continued on – it was a local electrician. No shots fired, though had there been one, I'd have likely never known it.

The following week I was leading my Wednesday evening “Lights and Pizza” ride, which was attended by about five other riders. On Elmer Rd, as we approached the tunnel underneath route 340, a Frederick County Sheriff's car rapidly approached us. As it passed, the deputy slowed, dropped his passenger-side window, and asked us if we'd seen a white panel van pass recently. I don't recall what our answer was – I think it was “no”. He then sped off ahead in his pursuit of someone, somewhere. If our answer was actually “yes”, then these bicyclists probably made someone's evening a bit scary when the officer caught up to him or her.

My wife and I reassured our children that a little place like Frederick was far from where the snipers were committing their cowardly acts – I don't know how much they believed us, or even if they remember much about it now. But she and I believed that. It was quite a surprise to us when, a week later, Muhammad and Malvo were found at the I-70 rest stop in Myersville, ending their short period of terror in our area – sleeping in a car that bore no resemblance to a white panel van. Upon a visit to our local radio station one afternoon weeks after they were captured, I was told by the receptionist that a man came in a few days before they were caught and asked to use their fax machine. He was denied use of the machine, so he left quietly. After they were captured, she recognized the man as bearing a very strong resemblance to John Muhammad. They were not only in our town, they were on the street where I worked and rode my bike.

As bicyclists, we learn how to avoid being struck by motorized traffic. There are techniques, rules to follow, ways to increase our visibility, and so on. Being shot does not enter our minds. With the exception of the time I was cycling northbound on New Design Rd around 1992, before the expansion and realignment of the roadway, and heard two gunshots from what I now believe to be a deer hunter's rifle. The shots came from my left, through a tall cornfield, passing close enough to me that I could hear the whistle of each bullet as it sailed through the air. Cell phones were uncommon at this time, and I was afraid to yell out in the event that I might have been the target, so I sprinted as fast as I could out of the area. I did not report the event; by the time I reached home it was forty-five minutes later and the hunter likely had left the area, as it was late in the day. About ten years later I asked a Sheriff's deputy how close a bullet would have to be in order for me to hear it in that manner. His answer was, “You don't want to know.”

Any time we go anywhere, there is some element of risk. Crossing the street, riding a bicycle, driving along a highway, watching a movie, being in school, and even running in a marathon. I am relieved that all of our local runners are safe and saddened that some runners were killed and some have had their lives unalterably changed.

But we keep on going forward. We have to.

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