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Nick Schager
May 9, 2021·6 min read
In I, Sniper, Lee Boyd Malvo speaks at length about the 2002 reign of terror he and partner John Allen Muhammad carried out in the Washington, D.C., area, resulting in ten deaths. Yet despite using audio clips from his phone calls as narration, Vice’s eight-part docuseries (premiering May 10) is most notable for putting its prime emphasis on the pair’s innocent victims, and the countless friends, family members and loved ones left to cope with unthinkable tragedy. To its admirable credit, it’s a true-crime affair that seeks to understand its “monsters” while simultaneously recognizing—and highlighting—the fact that such comprehension doesn’t necessitate empathy, especially when the atrocities in question are as inexcusably heinous as these.
Spearheaded by director Ursula Macfarlane, I, Sniper’s calling card is those phone conversations with Malvo from Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison, where he’s currently serving multiple life sentences. In them, the killer recounts, in exacting and chilling detail, both the sniper attacks he perpetrated as a 17-year-old, and the troubled upbringing in Jamaica that led him into the welcoming arms of Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran with a surplus of rage and a desire to unleash it on his homeland. Abandoned by his dad, abused by his mom, and eventually left to fend for himself, Malvo found in Muhammad a father figure who promised to love him as he did his own biological offspring. From the outset, though, theirs was a bond built on exploitation, with Muhammad becoming not only Malvo’s surrogate parent, but also his lover—as well as his mentor, pouring all of his long-simmering hate and resentment into the impressionable, desperate-for-acceptance teen.
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Muhammad’s gripes were many—he despised the military, white people, and just about every American institutional structure. However, he reserved his greatest enmity for second ex-wife Mildred, who dared to take back her kids after Muhammad had kidnapped them. The loss of his (abducted) brood seems to have been the proverbial match that lit Muhammad’s homicidal spark, and he soon began molding Malvo into his instrument of destruction. Friends and relatives suspected that something was up with their relationship, but no one foresaw what was to come: the cold-blooded murder of Keenya Cook, the niece of Mildred’s friend in Tacoma, Washington, followed by violent robberies, shootings and slayings in Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. All of those initial acts were merely a test run for Malvo and Muhammad’s grand scheme in Washington, D.C., the epicenter of American power, and thus Muhammad’s venue of choice to strike fear into the heart of the republic by proving that everyone was vulnerable—even children.
What transpired was a 22-day nightmare in which 13 individuals (white and Black, young and old, well-off and working-class) were shot, 10 of them fatally, in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Because Malvo and Muhammad’s intention was to terrorize in increasingly escalating fashion, each victim was chosen at random at gas stations, on street corners, and in parking lots that afforded the killers ideal vantage points and easy escape routes. They committed these crimes in a customized 1990 blue Chevy Caprice, with Malvo lying in the trunk and firing through the rear keyhole. It was a stealthy plot, and the two benefited from the fact that an early eyewitness said they’d seen a white box truck near the scene—thereby sending police, for the better part of the next three weeks, on a wild goose chase for the wrong vehicle. With no other ballistics-related leads, law enforcement was stymied, which proved to Malvo that Muhammad was right: no one could stop them from exacting their revenge.