Three Weeks in October

By Rich Lynch:

NO STUPID SNIPER IS GOING TO RUIN MY CONVENTION

That’s what was printed on a button which was handed out to attendees of the 2002 Capclave convention.  It was the second Capclave; the previous year the convention had debuted as a successor to Disclave, which had passed from existence following the notorious ‘Disclave flood’ incident of 1997 (and there are abundant details if you do a Google search).  The first Capclave had taken place just a few weeks after the nine-eleven attacks, and as a show of solidarity there had been buttons which had read: NO STUPID TERRORIST IS GOING TO RUIN MY CONVENTION.  I remember that most everybody did wear the button and it helped make the gathering seem more like the reunion of a large extended family than a science fiction convention.

Capclave appeared to be equally star-crossed in its next iteration. It was held over the weekend of October 18-20, 2002, and once again the attendees were brought closer together by an event taking place in the outside world. The word had spread quickly through all the Saturday night room parties: “There’s been another shooting.” Another victim of the D.C. Sniper.

D.C. Sniper shooting locations

We’ve reached the 20th anniversary of that terrible three weeks of violence so maybe a short summary of what happened is in order. Starting on October 2, 2002, there was a series of 15 sniper attacks, the locations ranging from Rockville, Maryland all the way down to a northern suburb of Richmond, Virginia. Parking lots and gas stations where there were clear sightlines seemed to be the preferred places for shootings, especially if they were located near a multi-lane avenue which provided a quick-and-easy escape.

The break in the case resulted after the sniper telephoned police from a pay phone and boasted of a previous unsolved shooting at a liquor store in Alabama. A fingerprint from that crime matched one for a 17-year-old man, Lee Boyd Malvo, who had a previous arrest out in Washington state. And it turned out that there were actually two people who were the shooters: further investigation indicated that Malvo was in the company of a much older man, John Allan Muhammad, who owned a Chevrolet sedan with New Jersey license plates. The pair were finally captured on October 24th, after two separate callers to a 911 emergency line informed police that they had spotted the car at an Interstate rest stop.

Ten people were killed during the three weeks of the D.C. Snipers’ shooting spree. In September 2003, Muhammad was tried and convicted in a Virginia court for one of the murders in that state and was sentenced to death. He was executed in 2009. Malvo was tried and convicted in Virginia a month later for another of the murders, and then pleaded guilty to two other murders in the state. Because he was not yet legally an adult at the time of the killing spree, he was spared the death penalty and instead was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life-without-parole. He subsequently pleaded guilty to six of the killings in Maryland and received another six life-without-parole sentences.

The 2002 Capclave took place near the end of the ‘reign of terror’, as news media now describe those three weeks in October. It was easy to see that there was some edginess with many of the attendees, especially ones from out of town, but there was heightened awareness even from local fans who were there. Robert Macintosh, for instance, claimed he hadn’t been particularly concerned about personal safety but he had still noticed that there were open sightlines in the vicinity of the hotel, including one where he had been unloading equipment and supplies. This cautiousness extended beyond the convention. Ted White exemplified this when he later wrote that: “They shot into the parking garage of the Seven Corners Home Depot, less than a mile from my house. My daughter had been in that garage less than 10 minutes earlier. And, on another occasion, the snipers picked off a man at a Sunoco station just off of I-66, near Manassas, miles west of here, a station where I often gassed up when visiting my friend Michael Nally at his store nearby. I was super-cautious then, crouching low next to my car every time I gassed it up, and not lingering in the open in parking lots. It seemed prudent.”

Even commuting to work for fans became a memorable experience, though not in a good way. George Shaner later wrote that: “There were moments toward the end of this period, when I was walking to the Ballston Metro stop in the early morning to commute to work, where I thought that this would be just the sort of circumstances where I could become a statistic.” For me it was a similar situation. In 2002 my work location was down in D.C. and I was commuting to the Metrorail station by bus. Each morning during the work week, bright and early, I and maybe another dozen-or-so people queued up at the Gaithersburg park-and-ride lot waiting for the bus to arrive. It was a very exposed location and I made sure to keep moving around while I was in line so that I wouldn’t be a stationary target. It was always a relief to see the bus turn into the parking lot to pick us up. And it was a huge relief when the shooters were finally captured.

As for the 2002 Capclave, my recollection is that just like the previous year, horrible events in the outside world brought us together. We took comfort in each other’s presence and in the end we refused to allow the snipers to ruin our convention. I hope I’ll never have to experience another three weeks like that. But it certainly was an extraordinary time, and it made the convention utterly unforgettable for me. I have no doubt that most other attendees thought so too.

1 thought on “Three Weeks in October

  1. The time of the DC sniper was pretty scary and I always worried sitting at bus stops if I was going to be a target. But I don’t remember the sniper being a Capclave concern. I do remember everyone being rattled at the 2001 Capclave but the world was a scary place in October 2001.

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