|Domestic violence is a “silent crisis” that must be confronted, said Mildred Muhammad to a packed room at WSU on Monday night. Photos by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services|
PULLMAN – Exactly nine years ago, one of the most terrifying murder sprees in U.S. history was underway in the Washington, D.C. area. For three weeks, an unseen villain randomly gunned down strangers from a roving blue Chevy Caprice. His shooting spree left 10 dead and three seriously injured.
Monday night at WSU, the woman who spent 12 years married to the man convicted of those crimes addressed a crowd at the CUB junior ballroom.
Path of domestic violence.
Mildred Muhammad’s ex-husband is John Allen Muhammad the “Beltway Sniper” executed by lethal injection in 2009 for the shooting rampage during what’s been coined as the “October of dread” in 2002. Many people don’t know that before John Allen became a cold-blooded killer, he was terrorizing his second wife, Mildred.
As keynote speaker of WSU’s Week without Violence, she delivered a loud and clear message: Her ex-husband’s shooting spree might not have happened if people had acted on her fears that his violent behavior was escalating.
“Domestic violence laws are not strong enough,” Muhammad said in a room so crowded that latecomers pulled in chairs from the foyer or sat on the floor. “Women in abusive relationships have limited tools to protect themselves.”
Wearing a scarf draped over her thick dark hair, Muhammad didn’t deliver a lecture; she told a horror story.
She and John Allen were raising three children in Tacoma, Wash., when the once-devoted father and hard-working business owner turned paranoid, irrational and hot-tempered after returning from the first Gulf War, Muhammad said. He had multiple affairs and as their relationship deteriorated, John Allen threatened to kill her, she said.
When she insisted on separating, “He looked at me and said, ‘You have become my enemy. As my enemy, I will kill you.” Afterward, he stalked her and tapped her phone, she said.
And yet many people including her own brother didn’t believe her when she turned to them for help. John Allen, with his million-dollar smile and polished manners, convinced them she was making things up, she said.
“I couldn’t get anyone to believe me because I had no physical scars. He was the calm one. I was the basket case.”
Befriending an accomplice
After she filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order, John Allen kidnapped the children and lived with them on the Caribbean island of Antigua for 18 months. It was there that he befriended a vulnerable teenager named Lee Boyd Malvo, who would later become John Allen’s accomplice in the sniper attacks, she told the gathering.
Once authorities found the children in August 2001, Muhammad gained re-custody, moved to a Washington, D.C., suburb and lived in a domestic violence shelter. When her ex-husband learned of her whereabouts, he drove to the D.C. area. It was there that he snapped, becoming a merciless precision gunman and taking Malvo with him, she said.
After federal investigators showed up at her door one morning to tell her that John Allen was suspected of being the Beltway sniper, they placed her and the children in protective custody. Her ex-husband’s goal, Muhammad said, was to eventually kill her and make the slaying appear random. “That way, he could be the grieving father and win back custody our children.”
Muhammad is “fully recovered,” she told the audience. In 2009 she published “Scared Silent” which documents her experience with John Allen. She also founded the nonprofit “After the Trauma” to help victims of domestic violence. Her three children are in college, she said, grinning broadly.
How can I help?
WSU’s Women Resource Center and YWCA invited Muhammad to speak on campus “to help people realize that victims of domestic violence don’t have to display physical scars,” said resource center director Turea Erwin. Verbal, psychological, and financial abuse are crafty forms of domestic violence that often occur before the bruises and beatings, she said.
If someone confides in you that they are being abused even if it isn’t physical Muhammad urged the audience to respond with these four words:
“How can I help?”