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The DC Sniper’s Trail Case Study: Forensic Files, Evidence and Culprits

The Sniper’s Trail Case Study Forensic Files, Evidence and Culprits

Two Snipers went on killing 13 people to cover a single murder. Some say that’s injustice. For some, it may be like the story of “Jack Richer” movie. In either of the cases, innocent people died.

Let’s take a back step and knows how both the snipers were able to do this. Who were they? What Forensic Evidence have they caught?

The case study on “DC Sniper’s Trail” is based on Forensic Files season 7 episode 40.

Case History of Sniper’s Trail Case of D.C.

A sniper’s terror gripped the D.C. metro area for about three weeks, from October 2nd to October 24th, 2002. The entire massacre trail eventually ended with the arrest of two suspects who insisted on calling themselves “GOD” – adult John Muhammad and teenager Lee Malvo.

From the first killing on October 2nd, several people— a total of 13 innocents— were shot while doing their daily activities, such as walking, running, mowing the lawn, filling up gas, shopping, and reading on a public bench. And one of the victims was an FBI agent.

In the man-hunt, people did their best to assist police, investigators and forensic experts, the FBI, and the Secret Service agencies. After 3 terrifying weeks, the two ruthless sniper killers were arrested from an old car they called home.

Who Were the Sniper in DC Sniper’s Trail Case? (Culprits)

Who Were the Sniper in DC Sniper’s Trail Case
  1. Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 years, nicknamed “Sniper”- an immigrant from Jamaica who settled in Washington DC.
  2. John Allen Muhammad, 41 years, used to date Malvo’s mother and developed a bond with Malvo.

List of Victims in Sniper Trail Case

#ShootingVictims NameRegion of Incident
1.James Martin (55)Shot down when he was putting groceries into his car, in Montgomery County.
2.Sonny Buchanan (39)Shot and killed by a single bullet while mowing a lawn, in Montgomery County Maryland.
3.Cab Driver (54)Shot when filling his car with gas, Montgomery County.
4.Sarah Ramos (34)Shot when sitting on a bench outside United States Post Office.
5.A Nanny (25)Shot at another gas station when vacuuming her car.
6.Pascal Charlotte (72)Shot and killed while crossing a Washington DC street.
7.A woman (43)Shot and survived a parking lot, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia (100km south).
8.Ian Brown (13)8th-grade student was shot and wounded as he entered his school.
9.Dean Myers (53)Shot and killed at a gas station near Manassas, Virginia.
10.Kenneth Bridges (51)Shot and killed at a gas station in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
11.Linda Franklin (40)FBI analyst shot and killed in the parking lot of a hardware store.
12.A Man at steakhouseShot and wounded outside a steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia. 90 miles from DC.
13.Conrad Johnson (35)Shot and killed when he was stepping out of his bus.

How were Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad Caught?

First Tip: The police get a tip from a catholic priest in Ashland Virginia. Sniper called the priest and asked for forgiveness for the sniper shooting and murder he committed in Montgomery Alabama. Immediately, police looked for the unsolved case of murder and found a shooting incident at the liquor store.

Second Tip— The Old Liquor Case: A few weeks earlier, in Montgomery Alabama, on September 21, 2002, two liquor personnel were shot claiming one of the employee’s life.

One of the witnesses noticed that one of the suspects dropped a magazine while running from the crime scene. Surprisingly, they left fingerprints on that magazine.

Positive Match: Those fingerprints were then run through AFIS (Automatic Fingerprint Identification System). And police found a positive match. Prints belong to Lee Boyd Malvo.

Get Caught: The nightmare ended on Oct. 24, 2002, when a trucker tipped off cops of a suspicious car. The cops arrived at the location and found Muhammad (41) and Malvo (17) sleeping in the car.

Forensic Evidence in the Snipper Trail Case

Forensic Evidence in the Snipper Trail Case

The following evidences were obtained throughout the period of three weeks:

1. Hollow Point Bullets

Hollow-point bullets are lethal because they expand on impact. It’s like dum-dum bullets. They cause more harm and serve injury to the target.

Forensic experts matched the fragments of bullets obtained from the crime scene with the test bullet from the recovered weapon from Malvo. Land and groove patterns on the bullets were established to be the same, which supported their origin.

2. Cartridge Casing

.223 caliber bullet casings, a very common type of cartridge, were obtained from the crime scenes. Cartridge casings are essential pieces of evidence to match extraction marks and ejection marks.

Comparisons of cartridge cases were done and the impact marks on all of them stated they were fired from the same weapon.

3. DNA Evidence

Multiple DNA evidence was obtained. Following were some of the DNA evidence that traced back to Lee Malvo and John Muhammad’s DNA.

  • From rifle and rifle scope.
  • From pen casing, obtained near the school shooting— Malvo’s DNA.
  • From plastic covers of letters matched with John Muhammad’s DNA.

These evidences established the link of both the culprit with the crime scenes and the firearm weapon.

4. Fingerprints

Fingerprints were obtained from:

  • Murder weapon (semi-automatic bushman rifle),
  • Laptop,
  • Car doors,
  • GPS, and
  • Letter plastic covers,
  • Magazine (from old liquor case)

Fingerprint Developing Techniques: The fingerprints were developed with the help of three methods:

It resulted in the development of a bunch of fingerprints which were later fed to the AFIS computer to do the match.

5. Letter Writing Samples

Writing from tarot cards, notes, and letters threat letters were recovered by police. In a detailed analysis, the letter reveals major clues such as:

  • There was more than one perpetrator because in writing there are “us” words.
  • Writing had common spelling mistakes. It defines the illiterate status of the writer.
  • The evidence helped the police to perform biological profiling of the perpetrator.

Forensic Techniques used to Solve Malvo Sniper Case

Multiple forensic techniques were used to track down and analyzed the evidence to help the investigation.

1. Geographical Profiling Technique

This technique analyzes the locations of a connected series of crimes from the data available in large-scale criminal acts to determine the most probable area of finding an offender.

It incorporates both qualitative and quantitative methods of investigation. Computer technology maps the desire for anonymity of criminals in their most comfort zones by tracking all the data available.

Geographical Profiling Technique in DC sniper case shoting

In Malvo’s The Sniper case, geographical profiling technique was applied that generated a 3D possible offender activity surface, which could be the most likely location of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo.

2. Latent Fingerprints Techniques

Three major techniques were applied to develop latent fingerprints obtained in the case:

a. Magnetic Powder: Magnetic powder forms a brush when it comes to the influence of a magnetic field that can be used to dust the prints over the surface. It adheres to the latent prints due to its affinity for oils and moisture and ultimately resulting in the development of fingerprints.

How To Develop Latent Fingerprints Using Magnetic Powders

b. Ninhydrin chemical method: When a solution of ninhydrin is applied to fingerprints, it reacts with the amino acids of the fingerprint residue and results in the production of an intense purple color print called “Ruhemann’s purple”.

c. Superglue Fuming Method: A sensitive method of fingerprints that helps investigators to obtain a bunch of fingerprints in the case. This method develops white color prints but only works on non-porous surfaces such as glass, and plastic. The method relies on the deposition of polymerized cyanoacrylate ester on residues of latent fingermarks.

3. AFIS System

Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) is an automated system that has a computer database of fingerprint records. The system searches to compare and match the known or unknown pair of fingerprints based on the algorithm of the Henry fingerprint system.

Why the original fingerprint division needed modification

Old fingerprints obtained from the magazine and new ones obtained from suspects were matched which helped in the conviction of John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

4. Comparison Microscope

Bullets and cartridges have microscopic striations and impression marks seen from the action of firing. These marks are unique; they can be used to identify a firearm.

For comparing bullet and their fragments, a comparison microscope is used. In the Malvo’s firearms, the fractured parts of bullets and impression marks on the cartridge case were matched side by side with the fired test samples. Fractured parts of bullets assembled like a jigsaw puzzle while analysis.

5. Behavior Profiling

The soft science of criminal profiling refers to studying the nature of a crime and based on data states the possible personality and other characteristics of the offender.

Behaviour Profiling was also applied to the case. The results indicated a white male, adult, high school graduate, divorced, and a loner. However, the behavior profiling turned out to be wrong.

6. High-Tech Military Surveillance Plane

High-tech military surveillance planes were also used in the targeted area to capture bursts of flame from the gunshot. This is majorly monitored by heat sensors in real-time. However, it doesn’t provide relevant information:

  • Malvo and Muhammad watched the news closely and fired their victim far away from the surveillance area.
  • Even if they take a shot surveillance area, it was hard to detect because they made a compartment on the back side of the car that hides the flame and smoke from firearm.

7. Where Sniper was Positioned?

FBI analyzed the first few shooting and used animation software to build models of the crime scene to determine where the shooter was positioned.

What is the Reason/Motive Behind Killings in The Sniper’s Trail Case?

Three possible beliefs, reasons, or motives behind the killing in Sniper’s Trail case:

Belief 1: Random Murder (Most Conclusive)

Muhammad had an ex-wife that lived in Maryland, near the Jeopardy area. As per his ex-wife’s theory, Muhammad and Malvo shot so many innocent people so that they could kill her and lead cops in believing that it was a random murder.

Belief 2: Loyalty towards Osama

Muhammad’s claimed “son” Malvo reportedly left written notes that suggested loyalty to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. However, other references to “The Matrix” film in the note make it less serious of the references.

Belief 3: For Money

The third belief was all killing is for money. Since the duo asked for a ransom of 10 million dollars from the police to stop the killings, it could be believed that the murders were done for the money.

Despite the testimonies and speculation, no firm motive for the killings was ever established.

How did John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo Disappear so Quickly from Crime Scene?

John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were living in their car— a 1990 4-door Chevrolet Caprice. They modified the car and make it a killing tank. The vehicle had a homemade mounting compartment that was used to fire high-powered bullets.

At the back, a 4-inch hole was made to fire bullets with ease by modifying the back seat. This allows Malvo to fire with ease, as there is no visible flame or smoke from the firearm.

They also have a laptop and a GPS device to get detailed directions and an easy pass to leave the scene of the shooting.

Punishments For Culprits of Sniper Trail Case

Trial:

  • Both Muhammad and Malvo were convicted of two rounds of convicted murders.
  • Muhammad was also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and firearms violation.

Punishments:

  • Malvo was sentenced to life in prison and Muhammad was given a death sentence.
  • John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009.

DC Sniper Victims Memorial in Wheaton, Maryland

In Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, there is a memorial dedicated to the victim of the 2002 DC Sniper shootings. Here is the location to visit DC Sniper Victim Memorial. Here is the Image showing the overall area.

DC Sniper Victims Memorial in Wheaton, Maryland address and map

Watch the Full Episode on Forensic File Channel: The Sniper’s Trail

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