Domestic violence is no joke as a crime. This blog entry originally appeared in Tara’s Tales as a way to point out journalists need to make sure they explore every angle of a story.
On Oct. 24, 2002, relief washed over Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland after the “D.C. Sniper” John Muhammad’s arrest. For 22 days before his arrest, residents felt danger and fear around every corner; many barely even dared to step outside. In the course of these 22 days, ten random people were killed and six hurt by Muhammad and his accomplice 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo. For weeks on end this story plagued the front of newspapers and captured the attention of millions around the nation, but there’s one side of the story you probably never heard.
Sept. 29, 2010 I had the opportunity to hear a lecture from Muhammad’s ex-wife Mildred on domestic violence. The story I heard enthralled me, entranced me, and most of all touched me. It was a story I knew I wouldn’t be able to find anyway in the media, especially in the days following Muhammad’s arrest. Mildred opened up her heart to the audience and let out her emotions. She spoke to us about the beginning of her and John’s relationship, how it began as normal. When John came back from the Gulf War everything changed. He became violent and started seeing other woman. After she demanded a divorce, he was granted visitation times with the kids on weekends. One weekend though, he never brought them back. For 18 months Mildred didn’t hear from her kids, they had been kidnapped and taken to Antigua by John. This is also where John met his accomplice in the shootings Lee Boyd Malvo, taking him in and acting as a father figure to him. Mildred went to the police, but they marked the case as “custodial interference” and told her they couldn’t do anything about it because there was no parenting plan in place. Later John called her and told her, “You are my enemy and as my enemy I will kill you.” “John was a man of his word,” Mildred told us.
This threat caused Mildred, a hardworking woman who owned her own business, into hiding for 8 months. After an emergency custody hearing, Mildred got her children back. But once again she was forced finding a place she hoped John wouldn’t find them. This is when the shootings started. She never believed it could have been John, but she did know he was “the perfect shot”, able to take one shot from afar and kill someone. This is what she feared. Everywhere she went, she looked up and around at the rooftops, waiting to see John standing there with a gun aimed at her. But the shot never came, rather it was the police who came… knocking on her door one day and convincing her to come to the jail for questioning. This is when she found out her ex-husband was the prime suspect in the D.C. shootings. This is also when she found out the main target of the shootings was her. John had planned to carry out random killings, so once he was able to get her everyone would blame it on the “D.C. sniper”. However, no one would know who the sniper really was and he would gain custody of the children.
Since he hadn’t been caught when the police took Mildred in for questioning, they rushed her to a hotel under police protection. Mildred shared with us what exactly happened in that hotel that night… how when his picture popped up on CNN she reached out to the TV and placed her hand over his picture saying “Who have you become?”, how after she tucked her three children into bed for the night she went to the bathroom, turned on the bathtub water, and curled up on the cold floor and cried into a pillow for hours.
She shared with us what she and her children went through the day of his execution on Nov. 10, 2009. How it took her all her strength and will to go against what she believed could be harmful to her children… asking them if they wanted to talk with their father one last time. She believed one sentence from the manipulative man she had once married could ruin the years of counseling her kids went through, but she knew if she didn’t allow them to talk to their dad they would be mad at her forever. They decided yes, they did want to talk to them. At 9 pm though, they turned on the TV and at 9:11 pm the news declared him dead. The last call never came. She was later given a reason by John’s attorney: John, who proclaimed his innocence since his arrest, would have to answer the question “why” to his kids. This would ruin all the years he had spent declaring his innocence.
It hasn’t even been a year yet since his execution, so it surprised me she was able to come out and speak to all of us. But she wanted to share her story of being a survivor of domestic violence; in hopes those being abused all around the country can find ways to survive.
What I also find really interesting about this story is how much coverage the shootings and her husband received, but how I never once found her side of the story. Sometimes, when reading news stories, you forgot about the third party in the story. Mildred mentioned the media never really blamed the shootings on John just wanting to kill her and gain custody of the kids. The media decided John had really committed his acts for other reasons, so Mildred’s story never came out. What we decide to print and broadcast over air is the only story the public will ever know. I think it’s something we as journalists have to remember. We need to investigate all sides of a story.
If you get a chance, I suggest reading her memoir: Scared Silent… When the one you love becomes the one you fear.