In light of the execution of D.C. sniper John Muhammad last night, I thought that you would find of interest a piece that I wrote about 7 years ago in the aftermath of the shootings. Of note, this was very real and personal for me. On October 22, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop that was one exit up from my wife's office. It's a pretty secluded setting and there is a gas station--that she frequently uses--right across the street.
In the days since John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were detained in the Beltway Sniper case, we have all wanted to know why these crimes occurred. Who were these cold-blooded murderers? How do people become so unabatedly evil?
Many have made up their minds about John Muhammad. He is an angry, frustrated, middle-aged man with gripes against his ex-wives and his country. It has been reported that he was sympathetic to the 9/11 terrorists. It is not too difficult to put the pieces together with him.
But what about the 17-year-old boy, who is now believed to have been the triggerman in these vicious acts? As we learn more about Malvos upbringing and his tumultuous childhood, things start to become clear. How did a young boy with a bright smile and a promising future become a 17-year-old killer? The answer: John Lee Malvo did not have an involved father.
Malvos childhood was characterized by constant moves from one school to another, one island to another, and one caretaker to another. His mother, Una James, was constantly trying to find new work and a new life for her and her son throughout the Caribbean. Many of the people who knew James and Malvo became exasperated at the constant upheaval in the intelligent Malvos life. However, the biggest mistake James made was that she did not feel it was necessary for her son to have a father.
As Malvo grew up, he searched for his father from time to time, but had limited contact with him. Friends and relatives point out that Malvo was keenly in need of a father figure in his life and he tended to flock towards older males in his neighborhood. But his mother and her sister grew up without their father. James simply did not realize the importance of father-love for a child. Her sister said, We grew up without a father. We dont know father-love. She went on to say that James did not realize that her son needed the father-love they never had.
Leslie Malvo, the biological father, owns a construction contracting company in Jamaica. Reporters located him the day after his son was arrested, and he commented in American media that he had been following the sniper murders. This is not a poor man living in an isolated, backwards village. He owns a business and reads American newspapers. However, he was a failure as a father. He did not contest James attempts to keep him uninvolved with their son. He never sought out his son, or tried to improve his sons life despite his relative wealth and despite the fact that James was causing such upheaval in the younger Malvos life.
Eventually Malvo had become tragically accustomed to childhood without a father. But as a boy enters his late teens he wants to find out what it means to become a man. He looks for examples of mature behavior from the adult males around him. He loves his mother, but begins to pull away in an attempt to establish independence - to fill the hole in his soul in the shape of his father.
In one of the many unstable settings Malvo found himself in, this time alone on the island of Antigua and his mother in Jamaica, John Muhammad entered the picture. Muhammad was a human smuggler, getting people from the islands to the states. He was a powerful looking ex-military man with strong political and religious convictions. To the impressionable Malvo, Muhammad immediately became an attractive and authoritative father figure. Through many twists and turns, the two ended up living together in the United States, apart from James, and in relative poverty. Lee Boyd Malvo changed his name to John Lee Malvo taking the name of his new father and becoming his son. Muhammads interest in guns and shooting provided another means for the two to bond. We now know what the grotesque product of that bonding would become 10 dead, 3 wounded, millions scared.
The statistics of father absence are potent, and illuminate several aspects of the Malvo case. A study of 1,800 middle-school students found that children who did not live with both biological parents were more likely to carry a gun. The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father. Seventy two percent of adolescent murderers are fatherless. However, as helpful as these statistics can be, they sometimes obscure the human tragedies that lurk behind them. Lee Boyd Malvo was abandoned by his father, and kept away from him by his mother who grew up without her father. He then turned to another man, who also did not know his own father. Together they killed.
Many will continue to analyze why these two men committed such crimes and they may come up with some very definitive answers. Psychologists, criminologists, academicians, and forensic experts will feed us with countless explanations. But we must look at this crime at its roots, as a crime of fatherlessness. If we do, not only will we have the greatest understanding of what happened, but we will also begin to embrace the solution to this problem - men must be involved, responsible, and committed fathers so that their shoes will not be filled by the likes of John Muhammad.