MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we'll get an overview of the new Supreme Court session and we'll talk about whether the newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, will have an impact. That conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, we go back to October of 2002. Even if you did not live in the Washington D.C. area, you probably remember that awful three weeks in 2002 when 10 people were shot to death and three more were seriously wounded. The violence seemed to come out of nowhere, the victims apparently chosen at random - regular people going about their daily lives, including a 13-year-old boy on his way to school. This sniper, it turns out, was John Allen Muhammad. He's scheduled to be executed next month. Aided by a young accomplice named Lee Malvo, Muhammad became known as the beltway sniper and he inspired deep and widespread terror.
But before John Muhammad terrorized the nation's capital, he had already terrorized one woman, his former wife, Mildred Muhammad. And after years of silence, she has written a new book, "Scared Silent," where she talks about how she met him, the years of abuse she endured in their relationship and how she found out that he was behind the killing spree. An excerpt of the book was published in this Sunday's Washington Post magazine. Mildred Muhammad joins me, now, from her office in Camp Springs, Maryland. It's her first national broadcast interview. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. MILDRED MUHAMMAD (Author, "Scared Silent"): Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate this opportunity.
MARTIN: I was thinking about what a big deal it is to step out after all these years of living in fear, really. I mean you were in protective custody at one point. Because you and the authorities believe that if John Muhammad knew where you were, he would kill you. So what made you want to speak publicly, and now?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Well, it was my desire to assist other victims and survivors of domestic violence, because this was a domestic violence issue. I did not have physical scars to prove that I was a victim of domestic violence. It is because I did not have the physical scars that my help was slow in coming.
MARTIN: Why do you say this is a domestic violence situation?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Because in the beginning, in July of 1999, John and I were experiencing separation. And at that point, I asked him to leave. However, he still had keys to the house and he was coming in, in the middle of the night standing over me. At one point he told me that you have become my enemy and as my enemy I will kill you. He was also in the community, so a lot of people knew him as a go-to person. If you needed something from John, then you could go to him and he would definitely get it for you. He was a man of his word. He said what he meant and he meant what he said. So when I tried to get help from those same individuals, they looked upon me as if I was the one that was crazy or what did I do to him to cause him to behave in this manner. It came to the point where I had to get a restraining order on him, and then we set up arrangements for him to see the children. This particular weekend he was supposed to have them back at a certain time; he did not. My son told me that the night he was supposed to bring them back, he boarded a plane to Antigua and it would be 18 months before I saw my children again.
MARTIN: You had to have the intervention of the authorities? Is that right - to get your children back?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Well, the authorities said that because we did not have a parenting plan in place, that he had a right to the children as well as I.
MARTIN: How did you finally get the children back?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: It was August the 30th, 2001. The executive director of the shelter that I was living in called and stated that they may have found my children and I needed to fax all of the paperwork to the Whatcom County police department in Bellingham, Washington, which I did. At that point, it was a detective that stated that they found my children and that I needed to fly back to Tacoma to an emergency custody hearing. While at the hearing, the judge stated that the children would be placed back with me. When we went outside to call CPS, Child Protective Services, I felt a presence behind me - which was John charging at me. I ran down the hallway as did my attorney and the friend who was with us. He approached the doorway of the courtroom, looked at me and said, gotcha. My attorney was afraid for our lives at that point and said we need to hurry up and get the children so that you can leave tonight, going back to Maryland.
MARTIN: And I think why all this relates to the issue that a lot of people know about, which is that John's later transformation into this killer, is that it's your view that in part the shooting spree was aimed at you. That he was looking for you. He was trying to harm you in a way in order to recover his children, is that right?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Yes ma'am. He went from Tacoma, all the way over to the east coast where I lived. I believe that I was the intended target and the random shootings was to cover up my murder, so that he can come in as a grieving father to regain custody of the children.
MARTIN: Let's back up again if we can, and just tell us a little bit about him. And how - what was he like when you first met him?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: He was a man of his word. He said he was going to do something, he did it. If he was not able to, then he had the courage to come to you to say, you know, I'm not able to do this, perhaps we can do this another way or I can do it at another time. And that's what most people liked about him.
MARTIN: You're saying that the early years of your marriage were good ones.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Yes mam, the early years of our marriage was good.
MARTIN: And when did he start to change?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Once he got back from Saudi Arabia.
MARTIN: Why was he in Saudi Arabia?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: He was in the army, 84th Engineers. When he came back he was a totally different person.
MARTIN: How so?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: The man that left was jovial, the life of the party, was not afraid to express his feelings or to go out of his way to help you. When he came back he was very reserved, he sat in the corner, pondering what happened to him in Saudi. I don't believe that I will ever know exactly what happened to him there, but whatever it was, it shook his foundation and changed him completely from the person that I knew before he left.
MARTIN: And he never told you anything about his time there, his service, or anything that would have given you anything to grab on to about what was motivating this change in behavior to you?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Well, he stated that there was a situation where soldiers were not being treated fairly based upon race. There was a smoke grenade that was thrown into the tent, and the officials in their investigation decided that John was trying to commit suicide. So they took him from his unit, they hogtied him and put him in a dungeon-like place with this head to the floor and left him there. And he said, do you know what they were trying to do? They were trying to kill me. Why would anybody want to do that? All I wanted to do was to be a good soldier. That is what changed him.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you, that when he came back, though, I wanted to ask, what was it that caused you to feel eventually that you had to leave that relationship. What happened?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: He said you have become my enemy, and as my enemy, I will kill you. I didn't feel I needed to wait around for that to happen.
MARTIN: You tell a story in the book, about how he would play board games with the children…
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Umm-hum.
MARTIN: …but became a thing where he had to win. That he would do anything to win, including cheat or change the rules and to the point where the children didn't want to be with him and then he would hold that against you. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Well, he would teach them how to play the games correctly and then he would change the rules on it so that they would always lose. My son became aware of how he was doing that and just stopped playing with him altogether. My son also told him on one occasion that, you know, you're only concerned - he was seven years old at the time - you're only concerned with situations that concern you.
You don't want to play with me the way I want to play. It's got to be your way or no way and I don't want to play with you anymore. So my son was very tuned - in tune to how his father was treating him and he no longer wanted to play with him.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mildred Muhammad. She's written a new book "Scared Silent." It tells the story of her years with John Muhammad, the Beltway sniper; her years as his wife, and how she found out that he was the center of law enforcement attention for the attacks in the Beltway.
Just to bring us up-to-date, at the time that these attacks took place, you had just moved to the Washington area not - not too long before. Do you remember when you saw the news about what was happening, how you reacted before you realized that he was involved.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Well, I think it was in October, when there was that cluster of people being killed on the same day, which caught everybody's attention. And so I was fearful and scared, trying to understand what was going on, just like everybody else. Did I think it was John? No.
MARTIN: How did you find out that he was a person of interest?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: I think it was October 23rd. ATF knocked on my door. They asked me to come down to the police station to ask - to answer questions and as I was there, an FBI agent continuously walked in and out of the room. And once he walked back in, he stated Ms. Muhammad, we're just going to have to tell you we're going to name your ex-husband as the sniper.
MARTIN: What went through your mind?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Total disbelief and horror. Then they asked me, do you think he would do something like this, and I looked up at the ceiling and I was like - well, yeah. And they said well, why would you think that? I said we were watching a movie, I don't remember the name of it, and he said I could take a small city - terrorize it. They would think it would be a group of people, and it would only be me.
And I said why would you do something like that? And he changed the subject. Then that's when the police asked me, did I want to go into protective custody. And they said, well Ms. Muhammad, didn't you know he was shooting people around you. I said well how would I know that if I'm in hiding. They said well the man that he shot in the hand with the laptop, that's right down the street from you.
The gentleman that was shot at the store in Brandywine, that's two miles away from you. You were the target. Didn't you know you were the target? And at that point they told me that we were going to be placed in police custody and we needed to go get my children and my sister and brother-in-law.
MARTIN: I'm sure most people can't even imagine what that was like.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: That was… You know, it's one thing for someone to say they're going to kill you, but then to actually see the work that was put into trying to disguise it. I still have not completely wrapped my brain around that fact. We were married for 12 years. We have three children together.
I don't understand why he hated me so much to the point of where he wanted to kill me. And it would have been one shot, right in the head, and that was it. Because he was one shot - one kill. He was registered as an expert in the military…
MARTIN: But he was an expert marksman.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: …he was an expert marksman.
MARTIN: We're going to take a short break, but when we come back we're going to continue our conversation with Mildred Muhammad. She's the former wife of the Beltway sniper. She's written a new book about their relationship and her understanding of Muhammad's behavior. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, the Supreme Court session began yesterday, we'll talk about what's in front of the court in a few minutes.
But first, we're going to continue our conversation with Mildred Muhammad. She is the ex-wife of John Allen Muhammad, the infamous Beltway sniper who terrorized the Washington, D.C. area during a three-week shooting spree in October 2002.
He and a young accomplice killed 10 people during a three-week period and wounded three others. John Muhammad is scheduled to be executed next month. His ex-wife is now speaking out about the man she was married to for 12 years. She says he was changed by serving in the military during the Gulf War.
Mildred Muhammad, before the break you told us that you were the ultimate target of the attacks, but I wonder what was it like when he found out that he'd been apprehended.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: My attention went completely on my children. I don't believe I thought about myself at that particular point because my children were crying, they were trying to understand. It wasn't until I was able to put them to sleep that I went into the bathroom with a pillow, turned on the water, and sat on the floor, and cried - trying to understand what was all of this about and why would he want to kill me and take innocent people along the way.
I blamed - I blamed myself - I blamed myself for that because I thought maybe I didn't yell loud enough, maybe I didn't tell enough people. Why didn't they listen to me? That was the one thing I continuously said, over and over and over. Why didn't they listen to me? Why didn't they listen to me?
MARTIN: Listened to what? What would you have wanted them to hear?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: To understand that John was a dangerous man. Did I know he was going to come up with a plot like this? No, but he was trying to kill me. And perhaps if somebody would have listened to me then he would have been off the street and would not have exploded in the manner in which he did.
MARTIN: Can I ask you this question?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Um-hum.
MARTIN: I take your point completely and nobody has walked in your shoes. Trust me when I say I don't judge you in any way. But I wonder why you're so sure he was trying to kill you and that he just didn't like - I guess what I'm asking you is, is it possible he just liked the attention, that it made him feel like a big shot?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: No. See, you don't know - you don't know John and that's why I don't look at it as someone judging me. I just look at it that you don't know John. The people that know John, know that this is something he could do. So because you're not able to understand or comprehend the level of planning that John does.
John would, when he was in the military, he would measure the dew on the grass when the sun is coming up to find out how fast it would dry. He had to be detailed in everything he did. He had a plan A, B, and C, and an outline 1, 2, and 3 on each. He had a backup to the backup to the backup. Whatever he put in motion had to succeed.
MARTIN: And I realize - and I take your point that it's not fair to ask you to get inside his head - but what do you think his endgame scenario was?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: His endgame scenario was to come in as the grieving father, to get the compensation, the victims' compensation - because John and I were divorced October 6, 2000, so my children would've been considered victims of crime. And they would have received the victims' compensation and he would've drove away. Nobody would've been wiser. He may be, would have been called the father of the year for coming in as the grieving father.
MARTIN: How - how are the children now?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: They are - they're doing good. My son is in college and my daughters are in performing arts school. My son is 19, and my daughters are 16, and 17. No, they do not talk to him. No, they do not have a relationship with him.
MARTIN: But you mentioned earlier, that you still felt - and I wonder if you still feel this, maybe this was just an initial reaction - you felt guilty. You felt, in a way, that perhaps you had done more to call attention to him.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: That was my initial reaction.
MARTIN: How about now?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Now I know that I did all that I was supposed to do and all that I could do. And I have to let the rest of it go.
MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from your story?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Well, I'd like for them to know that you don't have to have physical scars to be a victim or a survivor of domestic violence. There's a comprehensive safety plan in the back of the book along with resources to assist those who may find themselves in a situation like mine, or similar, to get the help that they need and not to go through the pitfalls that I went through in order to get the help that I needed to be free of that abuse.
MARTIN: What do you think might have made a difference for you?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: I believe what would have made a difference for me, is when John came back from Saudi, that he would have been debriefed and he would have received the counseling that he needed to be a more productive person in a non war zone. That's what I believe.
MARTIN: How are you doing by the way? I understand, through the book, that you have remarried.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: I have - August the 4th, of 2007, and he is a wonderful man. His name is Ruben Muhammad(ph) and my children love him and so do I. And he loves us too. And he has five children as well. So we are all one big happy family.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, that's a wonderful outcome to what a difficult period of yours. You sound happy.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: I'm, and I've also started an organization called After The Trauma, that assists survivors of domestic violence - because I feel like I had to do something to help the women who may find themselves in a position where they can't get back on their feet.
MARTIN: And finally Ms. Muhammad, forgive me, John Muhammad is currently scheduled to be executed on November 10th. His accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo is sentenced to life without parole. Do you have an opinion about those sentences?
Ms. MUHAMMAD: No.
MARTIN: Okay, well, thank you…
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Thank you.
MARTIN: …for speaking with us. My best wishes to your family.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Thank you.
MARTIN: Mildred Muhammad, her new book is called "Scared Silent." An excerpt of the book appeared this weekend on The Washington Post magazine. We have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Thank you again.
Ms. MUHAMMAD: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.