Madness and Terror and during the reign of the the DC Beltway Sniper
First published in The Potomac Review 51, Spring 2012
Can’t sleep. The words circle through my mind like a mantra as I drag myself out of bed, slap on some makeup and get my dog into the car. By the time we reach the park, it’s almost noon and I’m sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and thoroughly disgusted with myself. Normal people get up in the morning, even if they have slept badly. Normal people accomplish things by lunchtime. Normal people don’t obsess that their life is going to hell just because they wake in the middle of the night. The announcer on the radio drones on, a blur in the background until a live news report breaks in, crackling with urgency. This morning, while I’ve been sleeping — or trying to — four fatal shootings have taken place in a two hour period in nearby Montgomery County.
The details are sketchy, but this much is known: all of the shootings have occurred within a ten mile radius of the I-495 Beltway surrounding the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The victims appear to be random — a retired schoolteacher mowing a lawn in Rockville, an Indian cabdriver pumping gas at an Amoco station, a Hispanic housekeeper waiting for a bus outside Leisure World, a suburban mom vacuuming a Dodge Caravan at a Shell station. At each shooting, witnesses report a white van speeding away from the scene of the crime. The police think the deaths may be related. But it’s too early to tell.
In the park, thirty-five miles east of the shootings, I lock my car and leash Barney, trying to remain as alert as possible on three hours sleep. Barney is a Lab-Rottweiler, ninety-five pounds of meat and muscle wearing a metal hook collar that makes him look like a canine member of the Hell’s Angels. He is my protector, a watch dog who guards my sense of security, which unfortunately, is never secure enough. For one thing, I’m a woman, which, in certain circumstances, can be a distinct handicap. And at 5’2 and weighing less than my dog, I’m well aware it wouldn’t take much to take me down.
The day unwinds like any other. I go to work, take meetings and return home without any major somnambulistic screw-ups. Throughout the evening, the television stays on. In between commercials, the news department breaks in, urging viewers to stay tuned to for the latest updates. No shootings have occurred since the morning massacre. Then, at 9:15 p.m., a seventy-two year-old Haitian carpenter walks across Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington and is felled by a single bullet. Every media outlet in the District converges on the site.
That night I can’t sleep again, though it’s not the sniper keeping me awake. I’m terrified this latest bout of insomnia will spiral into the paralyzing anxiety attacks that have accompanied it before. I practice yoga breathing, then switch to tensing and relaxing various body parts, then give up on that and change positions (many times) before getting up to visit the bathroom (many times). Finally, I count backwards from two hundred. When I reach one, I’m still awake. And twice as frantic.
The next day, as Barney and I walk down the park road, squirrels rush through the leaves, gathering nuts as if nothing has changed. A hawk glides through the sky and swoops over a distant patch of wood. I think back to last summer when a Chihuahua puppy was picked up by a red-tailed hawk in its own backyard. It seems no matter where you are there is always a vulture circling in the clouds. Just this morning, a woman was shot by an unseen assailant while loading packages into her minivan in a parking lot in a Michael’s Craft Store outside Fredericksburg, Virginia. Police speculate the shooting may be linked to the D.C. area sniper.
I do the math. Fredericksburg is ninety miles south of D.C. on I-95. If the sniper is willing to travel ninety miles south, surely he will think nothing of traveling thirty-five miles east.
As we pass a picnic table, Barney noses around a pile of ashes on the ground, hunting for some bone or gristle from a long-ago summer cookout. “Cut it out,” I yell, pulling on his leash. He looks up at me, his graying muzzle smudged with a mustache of soot. I bend down to rub off the ashes, but before I can even get my gloves off the sound of gunfire echoes in the distance. My heart pounds against my eardrums. The sound repeats, sputtering this time, followed by a loud rumble. Just a truck,” I say to Barney, louder than necessary.
We head over toward the meadow, which is only a chain-link fence away from the main road. Walking in the open like this while a nutcase is on the loose is not the smartest thing to do, but I do it anyway. It’s as if I’m throwing up a dare to the Gods of fate. Come and get me, see if I care.
Two days later, with the shooter still at large, I’m no longer so brave. I stick to the interior of the park just in case someone decides to take potshots through the fence. The leaves fall, creating space where there was none and I can’t help but see it: the summer leaving, the fall coming, the sniper out there somewhere but not here. In my chest, the soft hammering of panic is beginning its silent journey to the center. As we stroll past the gold-leaved birches, I am being taken down, slowly, deliberately, and the shooter is so well hidden I don’t even know it’s happening.
This is how it goes. I’m walking under a blue sky watching three geese soar through the clouds when a thought erupts like a bullet pulling a bird from the sky: Remember, it says. That’s all it has to say. It’s a trigger. Click. What I remember is panic, hopelessness, the fact that I cannot sleep, cannot dream, cannot stop myself from falling into the endless well of fear at the center of my being. The blue sky fades. The black clouds return simply by remembering them.
Still, life goes on. I go to work, keep up with the reading and writing assignments for graduate school, cook dinner for my husband and take care of my dog. At night, I retreat to my computer, where, under the bronze gaze of Ganesha, destroyer of obstacles, words fly out of my fingers creating an essay about my father and the year leading up to his suicide. Sometimes the memories are too intense and a scene lived through words can crack my heart wide open, unleashing a flood of grief and tears.
The writer Patricia Hampl says “to write one’s life is to live it twice.” And it’s true, because after decades of blocking my father out of my mind, I see him wherever I go. At times, it’s as if he’s talking to me. There are other voices too, the ones that tell me I am insane, that I will never hold another job, I will never sleep again, finish my graduate work, or do anything I want to do. As the voices drone on, I show up for work, keep up with the writing and chat pleasantly with my classmates online. To look at me, you would think nothing is wrong. No one suspects a thing.
Meanwhile, the sniper has hit again. Fifty-three year-old Kenneth Bridges is killed while pumping fuel at an Exxon station off I-95, twenty miles north of Richmond. The police put out a sixty-mile roadblock along the interstate, but call it off after six hours. Once again, the sniper has vanished from the scene. Two days later, six miles west of Washington, D.C., forty-seven year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin is shot dead in the parking garage of a Home Depot located next to a Michael’s Craft Store.
One entire day goes by without a shooting. Then another. For five days, it’s as the sniper has driven off the beltway and out of our lives.
Almost overnight, the park quiets as fall descends on eastern Maryland. The chorus of cicadas dwindles to occasional solos. Bird chatter is softer, less frequent. I can’t help but notice it, even with the constant chattering in my head. I see small things: the green leaves of a birch tree fading, the gradual shades of yellow. Spider webs, opaque on a gray day, shimmer radiantly when the sun comes out. Nothing stays the same. Not for long.
As we walk, I imagine the sniper cruising down Hillsmere Drive right outside the park. Barney tilts his nose into the air, blissfully unaware of all the turmoil going on in the world. How wonderful it would be to be a dog, to live fully and freely in each moment.
I bend down, touch the slick blackness of Barney’s fur and bury my head in his neck. Just by touching him, I’m comforted, soothed by the soft movement of his ribs as he breathes, the raspy panting as he stands to catch his breath. Despite his looks, he’s a sweetheart who adores humans and lets babies ride on his back. But who am I fooling? Barney isn’t free, he’s a prisoner, leashed and chained whenever he leaves the house. He has to be. If another dog wanders into his territorial circle, even a friendly one, Barney morphs from a sweet, loving Lab into a killing machine, attacking the other animal mercilessly until they’re bloody and punctured, not stopping until he’s dragged away. Because of this, I have to keep him under constraint restraint. If he were free, he’d be all over this park. If he were free, he’d be able to ignore me when he turns in the direction of the woods near the playground and I say, “No. We’re not going there.”
He hears the weakness in my voice, the “no” that is less a “no” and more “I don’t think so.” He stops, plants his feet in place, and refuses to go any further. The sight of him standing there with his big black Lab-Rottweiler head pointed longingly toward the woods makes me want to cry.
“What the hell,” I say to the clump of fall-red poison ivy at my feet. I turn toward the sound of children shouting and follow Barney’s lead. We pass through the buffer of woods and reach the playground without incident — no dogs, no snipers, no random acts of any kind — just leaves and trees and nuts falling off the branches.
I pick up the rough shell of a Sweetgum pod and think about nuts, the kind that fall from my family tree: my father with his depression, my sister and her bi-polar mood swings, my cousins, aunts, members on both branches of my family whose minds battle against them. As I step over the soft earth of molehills on our way back, it occurs to me that there is logic to keeping yourself in perpetual panic. If you can’t think straight, you can’t do much of anything: no writing, no trying, no leaving yourself wide open to attack from others.
A whole day goes by without a shooting, then two, three, a full week of no activity. The entire region holds its collective breath, waiting for the inevitable. I stay glued to the radio and television, listening to police news conferences several times a day, tracing my finger over maps in the newspaper that detail each death by location and date. I search the highways for a white van, the kind servicemen use, the vehicle always mentioned as being seen at the scene of the crime. Like everyone else around here, I want to be able to do something to make this madness stop. And I can’t.
At 8:00 in the evening, thirty-seven year old Jeffrey Hooper is shot in the parking lot of a Ponderosa Steak House approximately seventy miles south of the Capital Beltway. This is when it becomes apparent to me that whoever is doing this no foreign terrorist but one of us, a red-blooded American who appreciates the subtle pleasures of a sizzlin’ steak, Texas toast and an unlimited salad bar. An inside job. The words resonate in my head. Inside. I’m beginning to understand in a way I never have before that this terrifying panic, this remembering, this thought prison of mine is an inside job, created, fed and set in motion by no one else but me.
Long ago, my psyche hatched a crazy scheme to protect me from what I could not bear to see: a father tormenting himself and his family with uncontrollable rages; a beloved parent constantly threatening suicide; the imminent fear of that threat actually being realized. The solution was distraction through internal confusion, reality jammed by the sound of my own thoughts. That mechanism has grown as I have grown, become misshapen and monstrous, no longer a protector but a bully, obsessive and relentless, taking on a life of its own. Now there are words for it: obsessive-compulsive disorder, low-grade depression, words that have been written next to my name on a doctor’s report. Most of the time, I can keep it under control. At least I like to think I can.
By week’s end, a cold front blusters its way into the region, arctic air fighting with the receding southerly front. The winds blow a steady twenty knots, gusting to thirty-five at times. As Barney and I head to the parking lot after a short morning walk, we’re almost knocked over by a rogue wave made of air. I turn my back, stumble before getting my footing again, then hunker down into my jacket and wait for it to pass. The wind howls. Everything in its path bows before it, including me. In that moment, I know I am powerless against the winds that rage within me. The thought is strangely freeing.
The next day, the police confirm the discovery of a four-page note found in a plastic bag nailed to a tree in the woods adjoining the Ponderosa parking lot where the last shooting occurred. It consists of rambling, cryptic passages that address the police directly. The sniper writes: Your children are not safe, anywhere, anytime. And we know they are not; he has already tried to kill one of our children, a thirteen-year old boy on the sidewalk in front of his own middle school. We are dealing with madness here; we all know it, and still, life goes on.
I take Barney to the park, reel his leash out and watch his sleek Lab body wiggle in three parts as he walks ahead of me. He has always walked this way, the front quarters moving independently of the middle ribs, which move independently from his hindquarters. My heart sinks as my eyes fall on the inward-facing hooks of the prong collar jiggling around his neck. After years of trying harnesses and leashes, it’s been the one thing that has stopped his runaway pulling and given me some amount of control when he goes after other dogs. He doesn’t seem to mind the collar, even waits patiently as the prongs are hooked around his neck. To look at him, you’d think he’s a happy-go-lucky guy who happens to be a canine bully and killer of small animals. But what kind of life does he really have?
I watch him lick a wet leaf, his entire being focused on the texture and flavor of what is most likely dog urine. When I murmur his name, he circles his tail in happy response. As we walk on, I ponder my question. What kind of a life does he have? A good life, I decide. A life with a woman who knows exactly what kind of beast he is and still loves him.
Maybe it’s time to see myself as clearly as I see my dog. Perhaps it’s possible to be inherently flawed and still have a decent life.
A day after the police find the note outside the Ponderosa steak house, a man identifying himself as the sniper calls the police. The call is traced to a pay phone at an Exxon station just off the interstate outside of Richmond, Virginia. Police descend on the area in force, zeroing in on a white van idling beside the pay phone. Two men, both illegal immigrants, are taken into custody. They are found to have no connection to the sniper and are turned over the INS. Meanwhile, the killer is on the loose, the elusive white van still swimming among us.
How does it happen, this seeing only what you want to see? I think about all the changes I’ve been going through: starting graduate school, worrying about money, writing about my father and the impact unlocking those memories has had on me. Barney squats over a shrubby young pine and I hear myself say, “No wonder I’m going insane.” It makes me laugh, and then the wind begins laughing with me, tickling the tulip trees, which in turn release their burden of leaves.
That’s when I know it’s time to leash this crazy dog running wild inside me. For years, I have gone on and off of antidepressants, taking them only as an act of last resort and only for as long as it takes to get out of the hole I periodically fall into. Medication is my prong collar, the thing that keeps my inner beast contained. I hate to do it, but when the depression takes over, it’s the only way that I can get up and walk into my life again.
A day after the cops bust the illegal immigrants for the sniper’s phone call, I’m awake, tossing and turning in my bed. It’s 5:56 a.m., the same time that bus driver Conrad Johnson steps out of his Metro bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland and breathes in the cool morning air before his route begins. A single shot rings out from the direction of the basketball court across the street, landing in Johnson’s chest, making him the tenth fatal victim of the sniper. The following day, the police release a statement alerting the public to be on the lookout for a dark-colored Chevy Caprice with New Jersey plates.
The white van, the one we have all been watching for, turns out to be a red herring. For weeks, we have all been looking at the wrong thing.
In the early hours of the morning of October 24th, a truck driver sees a car fitting the description of the Beltway Sniper’s vehicle at a highway rest stop in western Maryland. He calls the State Police. Thirty-three minutes elapse before they arrive on the scene to awaken and arrest two men sleeping in the car. One is a teenager with a Caribbean accent. The other, a tall, solemn man, says nothing as he is cuffed and taken away.
Following the arrest of the snipers, we learn many things. The Chevy Caprice had been sighted repeatedly at the scene of the shootings, but law enforcement officials chose to ignore it. The shooters concealed themselves in the trunk of the vehicle and shot out of a small hole cut into the rear taillight of the car. The snipers were black, not white as suspected. The tall man was in a custody battle with his wife, who lived in the Washington, D.C. area and shopped at Michael’s Craft Stores. Talking heads discuss possible motivations: revenge, money, power, insanity.
In my head, elevated levels of serotonin begin putting out the brush fires sprouting between the synapses in my brain. As the medication kicks in, the obsessive thoughts become quieter, and as the days go by, quieter, still. I sleep at night for a few hours, and then a few hours more. Things begin to return to normal, whatever that is.
One week after the sniper has been caught, the park meadow glitters with the first frost of the season. Clouds float by, taking on the benign shapes of fluffy cartoon characters. Back in the car, I reach behind and rest my hand on Barney’s blocky Lab head, grateful for the quiet miracle of loving and being loved without having to say anything. We sit for a while like this, watching squirrels run from tree to tree. Then I open the windows and let the cool breeze enter.