Execution Reopens Wounds For DC-Area Sniper Victims

6:41 AM, Nov 11, 2009   |    comments
Paul LaRuffa
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HOLLYWOOD, Md. (USA TODAY) -- At least once a week, something -- the lingering stiffness in his left arm, a door slam or even the dark -- triggers a memory of the night seven years ago that Paul LaRuffa somehow survived.

LaRuffa, 62, was leaving his restaurant with the day's receipts, about $3,500 in cash, when he settled into his 1999 Chrysler sedan for the short drive home.

He barely had closed the door when a muzzle flash creased the darkness outside and the driver's side window exploded in a shower of glass. Next came the muffled pop of gunshots, six in all.

"I knew someone was shooting me," LaRuffa says. "I didn't feel the pain right then, but knowing someone is shooting you is really, well, astounding."

It would be more than a month later -- a near-sleepless stretch of painful rehabilitation punctuated by frighteningly vivid flashbacks -- that LaRuffa and an anxious nation learned the attackers' identities: John Allen Muhammad and his teenaged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 24, who is now serving a life sentence in Virginia.

The ambush Sept. 5, 2002, outside Margellina's Restaurant in Clinton, Md., launched an autumn of terror in which Malvo and Muhammad, known then simply as the D.C. snipers, paralyzed the nation's capital, Maryland and Virginia. When the shooting finally stopped, 10 people were dead and six others wounded. A new landmark looms in one of the most heinous murder cases in U.S. history: Muhammad, 48, is scheduled to be executed Tuesday as the mastermind of the rampage.

LaRuffa has no interest in going anywhere near the Jarratt, Va., execution chamber. But his life and those of dozens of other people -- the victims, their families, witnesses and even law enforcement officials -- were forever altered by the attacks.

Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt Muhammad's execution, despite his attorneys' pleas that evidence of "severe mental illness" was not presented at trial.

"In its effort to race John Allen Muhammad to his death before his appeals could be pursued, the state of Virginia will execute a severely mentally ill man," attorney Jon Sheldon says.

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine rejected a clemency appeal.

Since Muhammad's death date was set in September, Virginia prison officials have been swamped with inquiries about its most anticipated execution in recent history.

News agencies from as far as Australia and the Netherlands are expected. Prison spokesman Larry Traylor fears there may not be enough room for all the survivors and victims' relatives who want to witness Muhammad's death by lethal injection. "Quite frankly," Traylor says, "we may have to turn folks away."

For many, Muhammad's scheduled execution reopens painful wounds and stirs often conflicting personal experiences: survival, loss, rage, sadness and -- for a few -- satisfaction.

"What I remember most is this incredible silence after the shooting stopped," LaRuffa says. "I was leaning over the console of my car. I knew I was shot; I was bleeding like a son of a gun. I definitely had thoughts that I might die, but I knew I didn't want to die in a parking lot in Clinton, Md.

"No way."

The witness

It's been seven years, but Ron Lantz remembers almost everything about the night he helped catch the D.C. snipers.

Just after midnight on Oct. 24, 2002, Lantz pulled his big rig into a Myersville, Md., rest stop.

All night, news radio had been burning with talk about the deadly shootings that for more than a month had terrorized the Washington region.

Everything about the Chevrolet Caprice parked 50 feet away from Lantz's rig aroused his suspicions: The battered blue car was similar to a description of the suspects' vehicle being broadcast on radio and television stations across the country.

Lantz stepped down from the truck and walked to within 20 feet of the car. The New Jersey tags revealed a chilling match. At that moment, Lantz says, he feared for his life.

Lantz's call to authorities was one of at least two from the truck stop that led a small army of police to Muhammad and Malvo, who were asleep in the car. That call also changed Lantz's previously quiet life.

When he arrived back home late that night in Crittenden, Ky., he found a media encampment. TV satellite trucks and news crews clogged the street, all waiting to talk to a newly minted local hero.

His 18-wheeler had barely pulled to a stop before some of the uninvited guests began pulling him from the truck cab. For days after, he would "sneak out the back door" to run errands.

Even after the news crews went home, Lantz says part of his identity had changed for good: He had been thrust into the role of a local hero.

Four months after his encounter at the Maryland truck stop, he was on a Caribbean cruise, financed by popular trucker radio personality Dale Sommers.

Lantz had been listening to Sommers' show, the Truckin' Bozo, on Cincinnati's WLW-AM radio, when Sommers broadcast a description of the snipers' vehicle. On the cruise, Sommers says he would introduce Lantz as one of the people who helped capture the snipers. "They wanted to meet a real American hero," Sommers recalls.

For his efforts, Lantz, 68 and now retired, says he received a monetary reward. He declined to discuss the details of it, including its source. He says he gave away half to some of the shooting victims. He is marking the days to Muhammad's execution.

"I believe in the death penalty. He didn't care to take the lives of 10 people. We shouldn't care to take his. I know that sounds harsh, but that's how I feel."

The grieving father

For Marion Lewis, the execution is all about "getting justice."

Lewis was in a hotel room "somewhere in the middle of nowhere" seven years ago when he received the news that his 25-year-old daughter, Lori Lewis Rivera, had been killed at a Kensington, Md., gas station.

Rivera had been vacuuming her car about 10 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2002, when she was shot once in the back. Investigators later matched the bullet fragments to the powerful Bushmaster rifle recovered in the Chevrolet Caprice when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested, according to a summary of the shootings prepared by the Virginia attorney general's office.

"There are no words," Lewis says, struggling to describe his reaction to the devastating news that his girl with the "big smile" was dead.

Since then, the only thing close to relief came two months ago when a Virginia judge set Muhammad's execution date.

"I'm actually happy it's happening now," says Lewis, 57, who lives in Mountain Home, Idaho. "I want people to understand that (until the execution date was set) I was afraid he was going to outlive me on death row."

When Virginia officials called about three weeks ago to ask about the family's interest in witnessing the execution, Lewis said he wanted to go. But the unemployed construction worker couldn't afford the travel.

Determined to make the trip, Lewis says he began calling various news organizations for help, including some of the outlets that reported on his daughter's death. One of them, the syndicated TV show Inside Edition, agreed to pay his way. Inside Edition spokeswoman Donna Dees confirmed the show is covering Lewis' travel expenses in return for interviews with him.

Unless Muhammad is granted a reprieve, Lewis says he'll join his son-in-law, Nelson Rivera, who also has a reserved seat for the execution.

"It's important for me to be there," Lewis says. "I want to see that son of a b----- close his eyes for the last time. It was because of him that I had to put my daughter in a box."

The prosecutor

By the time Muhammad arrived in a Virginia courtroom for his murder trial in 2003, the evidence against him included the sniper rifle, the Caprice and dozens of witnesses.

But Paul Ebert, 72, a Virginia prosecutor for more than four decades who had won death penalty verdicts in more than a dozen cases, couldn't recall a time he had been more nervous.

"I never had a case like this," Ebert recalls. "This guy had no conscience. There was no remorse. It's hard to get in the mind of someone like this."

It became harder, Ebert says, when Muhammad initially tried to represent himself in court.

"When he started out, he scared the hell out of me," the prosecutor says, recalling his fear that the jury might somehow sympathize with the defendant who faced the legal might of an entire state, home to the nation's second-busiest execution chamber behind Texas'.

"I thought that if he could develop a rapport with the jury," Ebert says, "it might be a way out for him."

Muhammad soon turned the case over to his court-appointed attorneys. The change in representation could not overcome the evidence against him.

For Ebert, the jury's guilty verdict Nov. 17, 2003, was more than another courtroom victory. He forged deep personal friendships during a prosecution that carried the expectations of an entire region.

He still talks occasionally with some of the survivors and victims' relatives. Each spring for the past five years, he has hosted the investigators and prosecutors on a fishing trip just off Solomons Island, Md.

The group is so close that, in a show of solidarity, Ebert tentatively has agreed to join some of his colleagues at the scheduled execution. Despite Ebert's extensive death penalty record, he has never witnessed one.

"I'd be happy to pull the switch," he says, "but I guess I've never been much of a spectator."

The survivor

In the spacious "dream house" Paul and Linda LaRuffa built in the woods near the Chesapeake Bay after his recovery, the autumn of 2002 seems like another lifetime.

There is easy laughter. There are no more nightmares. But the memories are always close by.

Would Muhammad's execution provide any sense of personal satisfaction?

The question brings both of them to the verge of tears. But not because the LaRuffas are marking the days to Muhammad's death. "When I think of him now, I say to myself, 'What a waste of a life,' " Linda LaRuffa says.

"If somebody said they could give me a pill that would wipe away that part of my life, I wouldn't take it," Paul LaRuffa says. "I don't think I want to forget. I think it becomes part of life the same way anything else does.

"It's never over."

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