Investigator Reflects Decade After D.C. Sniper Attacks

Melissa Block speaks with Captain Barney Forsythe, the retired director of the Montgomery County Police major-crimes division. Ten years ago he ran the investigation of the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings for Montgomery County, Md., which suffered the highest number of sniper murders.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Ten years ago this week, the Washington, D.C., area was in the grip of terror. On Wednesday, October 2nd, in Wheaton, Maryland, a man was shot and killed in a grocery store parking lot.

The next day, five more people were shot dead - at 7:41 in the morning, a landscaper cutting grass at a car dealership; at 8:12 a.m., a taxi driver filling his gas tank; 8:37, a house cleaner sitting on a shopping center bench; 9:58, a nanny vacuuming her employer's van at a gas station; and later that day, a handyman simply crossing the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS BROADCAST)

PETER JENNINGS: It was a terrifying situation for thousands of people, gunmen in the neighborhood killing individuals in a methodical way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a level of fear that we're not used to.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's like, what you do now? Are our kids safe?

JENNINGS: When the news got on the radio and the television people were too frightened to go outside, it happened again and again - and again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Pop - it was a loud pop. You hear something say, pop! And then I heard a lady start screaming.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: People just really can't understand how someone could do this in the senseless killings, the random killings.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Virtually every law-enforcement agency in this area - including local police, the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and Secret Service - is looking for whoever is responsible for the worst murder spree that has that has ever happened here.

BLOCK: Ultimately, the gunman turned out to be two men working together - John Allen Muhammad, and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo. By the time they were arrested some three weeks later, they had killed 10 people in the Washington region. Three more were seriously wounded. In a moment, we'll hear from one of those survivors - shot five times in his parked car, and left for dead.

But first, I'll talk with one of the men charged with running the massive investigation to find the so-called D.C. snipers. Authorities chased down thousands of leads before Muhammad and Malvo were finally spotted at a rest stop in suburban Maryland, and arrested. Capt. Barney Forsythe was then head of the major crimes division in Montgomery County, Maryland. And he remembers the morning of October 3rd - the worst day - when word came in of one killing after another.

BARNEY FORSYTHE: I've described it to some people as sort of like getting hit in the face - if you've ever been in a fight - and you're shocked. And you have to, you know, get your bearings, and realize that you're - you're not in over your head, but this is territory that you're not familiar with.

BLOCK: I'm trying to imagine what it must be like, for someone who does what you do. You have killings mounting day after day, over the course of weeks. You have families coming to you - no doubt - and saying, why can't you find these guys? They are shooting in dense, urban areas; there's got to be somebody who's seen what's happened. And you haven't been able to stop them.

FORSYTHE: (Breathes deeply) Well, just like I just did - I take a deep breath because you - sometimes, you just can't provide people with the answer. And what they have to have, is the faith. And Montgomery County Police Department - and the Washington metropolitan area has some pretty good police departments, with good reputations. And we work well with the federal and state authorities. And that was extremely important.

But is it frustrating? Yes, it is. But you also realize that you can't spend too much time on frustration because that's counterproductive. You have to keep moving forward.

BLOCK: I remember thinking a lot at the time of these shootings, 10 years ago, that it's so easy to rip the fabric of a society apart. It didn't take much for these two men to sow panic. And I remember thinking, it's surprising it doesn't happen more often - and that's a terrible feeling.

FORSYTHE: I couldn't agree with you more. Our stance on that - and I say "ours"; probably collectively, it's as a law-enforcement community - is, you just have to work hard to try to make these things shorter, if they start happening; be better at working together - interagency help, and what have you. But, yes, it only took two people; one - you know, one with some training, and a child - for all intents and purposes - a teenager, to wreak that kind of havoc.

BLOCK: How much does this experience stay with you, now?

FORSYTHE: It's with me. My involvement with it - especially within my family; friends knew that I was, you know, pretty deeply involved in the investigation. So there are times when you hear things, whether it's a - especially as we come up on the 10th anniversary. Or - and again, most police officers are probably like, if you've had investigations, you drive by places where you know somebody lost their life. When I'm down in the Aspen Hill area, you know, it's very tangible, you know. It means something, probably to a lot of people from that area.

You drive through there - I remember standing over there with the chief - on the corner - the first day, you know, trying to explain to a horde of news people, you know, this is what we know. And it wasn't much. So it's with me. It's with me. It's not - it doesn't overpower me. It's - it's there.

BLOCK: Captain Forsythe, thanks for coming in.

FORSYTHE: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Capt. Barney Forsythe. Ten years ago, he was head of the major crimes division in Montgomery County, Maryland. He's now retired.

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