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Beltway Sniper Witnesses Unable to Forget Tragedy

The locations of the Beltway sniper shootings are shown above in blue; the location of the snipers' apprehension is shown in yellow. View shooting locations in a larger map. (By Maryland Newsline's Emily Kimball)
James L. Buchanan was fatally shot by the Beltway snipers while landscaping this plot of grass behind Fitzgerald Auto Mall. A memorial plaque marks his death. (CNS photo by Christopher M. Matthews)

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By Christopher M. Matthews
Capital News Service
Friday, Nov. 6, 2009

ROCKVILLE, Md. - On a sunny, fall Thursday seven years ago, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the "Beltway Snipers," shot and killed five people in Maryland and Washington. For many of the witnesses to Muhammad's crimes that day, his execution Tuesday would represent justice served.

But the countdown to Muhammad's death has also forced those who witnessed his carnage to remember the horror and the fear of that day in October.

"It never ends," said Gary Huss, who watched James L. Buchanan Jr. bleed to death after he was struck by one of Muhammad's bullets.

"I forget about it for a while, and then people like you come along," he said. "After he dies, hopefully I'm done with this, no more reporters."

Barring the Supreme Court overturning his sentence, or Virginia's governor commuting it, Muhammad, 48, is set to die by lethal injection on Tuesday at Virginia's Greensville Correctional Center. Muhammad and Malvo's 22-day shooting spree in October 2002 left 10 people dead and three injured.

Shortly after 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2002, James "Sonny" Buchanan pulled up to the back lot of Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Rockville. Buchanan had recently retired from landscaping but as a favor to Jack Fitzgerald he continued to mow the car dealership's grass.

"He was always just nice, and looking out for the property," said Huss, who runs the dealership's repair shop. "Just a nice guy ... honestly concerned just about general people and the environment at the dealership. A gentle guy."

Huss remembers driving up to the dealership that day and seeing Buchanan on the mower. As he often did, Huss got out of the car and made small talk with Buchanan. Moments after Huss pulled away he heard a loud bang, but dismissed it as a car backfiring on the busy Rockville Pike nearby.

"I just didn't think anything of (the noise from the shot)," he said. "To randomly do that to people, families? This is Rockville, not Iraq."

When Huss was told that someone was bleeding in the back lot, he still didn't put two and two together. It wasn't until the body was turned over that he realized it was Buchanan.

"It was a life changing experience," said Huss. "I just, you know one second we're talking there like you and me, and then he gets shot."

Huss eventually served as a witness in both Malvo and Muhammad's trials. Muhammad, who defended himself, cross examined Huss.

"(Muhammad) was arrogant in court," Huss said. "He just gave me the blank stare."

After he finished his testimony, Huss walked over to Muhammad, thrust the cross around his neck into Muhammad's face and whispered a warning that will come to fruition next Tuesday.

"I would love to be there to see him meet his maker, since I was the one who told him he was going to that day," said Huss.

Shin Song cannot forget that Thursday in October either.

"I tried to forget, but time to time it come back," he said.

Song owns the gas station in Aspen Hill where Muhammad shot and killed Premkumar A. Walekar. Song said that he knew Walekar well because he was a regular customer and their sons played football together.

Walekar was a cab driver who worked the night shift and filled up every morning at Song's Mobil station, which is now a Sunoco.

"He usually, he stop by 9 o'clock, but that day he stop by around 8," Song said. "He always do the same thing -- park by pump 7, then he come inside and go to the bathroom, always the same. Then he buy a lottery ticket, a coffee and a Washington Post and then he pay the gas."

Song followed Walekar out of the store, said goodbye and walked toward the repair shop. As he rounded the corner to the shop, he heard people yelling, and thought someone might have been struck by a car. Instead he found that Walekar was shot.

"(Walekar) had worked his way over to a white van, and the blood was all over the van," Song said. "And the driver of the van was a doctor. She was on her way to NIH. And she tried to stop the bleeding by hand, but the ambulance get there and say he's gone."

Song said that later that evening he saw Charles Moose, the Montgomery County police chief who led the investigation that eventually caught the snipers, standing by the pumps. Song asked him what he was doing.

"(Moose) was so frustrated, and he said I'm just thinking about what's going on," said Song. "And I say, come in, and let's have some coffee and we have coffee and I see his face and it's so tired."

As for Muhammad, Song has no remorse.

"He got to go out," he said. "I have no sorry feeling about him."

Wang Nguyen shares this feeling.

"I just only know that (Muhammad) will pay, and that's fine," Nguyen said.

Nguyen was one of the first people to discover the body of Sarah Ramos on a bench outside the Crisp & Juicy Restaurant in the Leisure World Shopping Center. Nguyen is a hair stylist at Images Salon, a few doors down.

"I remember I'm coming around at 8:30," he said. "I set up my tool and I hear a lady come and say `call 911 a lady got shot over there.' And I jumped out and see a lady shot on the bench and she already die, and the blood all over. Feeling horrible to die that way, it's awful to die that way."

Nguyen, who received some medical training in the military, is haunted by the fact that he was unable to help Ramos.

"I still think about it," he said. "It's awful, awful thing, because I try to go there to help the lady, but I see that she dead and there nothing I can do."

Sharon L. Ricks also saw Ramos' body that morning. She said that for a long time she was unable to eat at Crisp & Juicy, one of her favorite restaurants.

"The thought of sitting right there is difficult," she said. "You always think about (the shooting)."

But Ricks, who is a real estate agent at the Weichert Realtors in the Leisure World Shopping Center, doesn't think Muhammad's execution will make people forget what happened that day.

"(There will be) no closure at all," said Ricks. "People will continue to wonder why, how could he do it?"

Banner graphic by Maryland Newsline's Lindsay Gsell. Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism
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