In an interview with NPR, Mildred Muhammad, ex-wife of D.C. sniper John Muhammad and author of a new book about domestic violence, Scared Silent, says she was the real target of her ex's 2002 shootings, which killed 10 people.
Having endured 12 years of emotional and physical abuse while married to him, Muhammad knew how violent her ex could be, and that, with his military background, he was capable of killing someone. She also knew he wanted to kill her; after she won custody of their three children, he told her so. What she didn't know was that he would go as far as enlisting a 17-year-old accomplice and shooting strangers to make her planned death appear random.
Mildred Muhammad says her ex-husband thought if she were killed by a crazed gunman, he would regain custody of their children and collect compensation owed them as crime victims. "His end-game scenario was to come in as the grieving father," she says. "He maybe would have been called father of the year."
When police pointed out that all of the D.C. snipers' victims had been killed in areas near where she was likely to be, Muhammad was stunned. She had never suspected that John could be one of the snipers until the police arrived at her door. In the prologue to her book, excerpted on NPR, she writes of that moment, "For months I had looked over my shoulder for two people: John, my ex-husband who had promised to kill me, and 'the D.C. sniper,' who had terrorized the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area where I lived by randomly killing people. Now I was forced to reconcile that there was only one man."
Which raises the obvious question: If John Muhammad threatened to kill his ex, after a history of abusing her — not to mention kidnapping their children for 18 months in 1999 — why was he free to kill 10 people? That's where Mildred Muhammad's story becomes all too familiar. "She says she had known for years her husband wanted to kill her, but no one would listen.... She tried to alert friends and neighbors to the abuse, but she says no one believed her because she bore no physical scars." It's a common story for victims of domestic violence: The threat to their safety isn't taken seriously, their abusers go unpunished, and they're too terrified to leave, especially if they have children to protect. Too often, no one recognizes how bad it is until the victim is murdered. In this case, she was lucky enough to survive, but 10 strangers lost their lives. Is that enough of a wake-up call about the degree of violence and destruction some abusers are capable of?
Muhammad says her ex-husband's behavior was noticeably changed after he returned from the Gulf War, and "she believes counseling before he returned to civilian life could have averted the rampage." Maybe it's true that the military made him the kind of guy who could kill 10 people indiscriminately, but there were certainly signs that he could be the kind of guy capable of killing his own wife long before that. In the excerpt, Muhammad writes of their first meeting and early courtship, during which John exhibited numerous red flags. He was talking marriage on the first date; he blamed all of his previous partners for ruining those relationships; he told her that "that in his life, it was as though anyone who had ever cared about him wanted something from him" — which made Mildred want to be the special one who loved him for him, the one who saved him (exactly as it was intended to). And oh yeah, he forgot to mention he was already married. There was that, too. Nevertheless, he primarily came across as charming and kind, to Mildred and everyone else who met him. Says the author:
People often ask me how he behaved when I met him and whether he seemed controlling, moody, or insecure, and I have to answer that he seemed much calmer and more stable than most people, but I had no real understanding then of his well-developed acting skills... During his trial, I read newspaper reports of testimony from a woman he was dating in the last years of our marriage; she also described him in glowing terms as being gentle, considerate, and strong. Of course, during the early years of our relationship, I thought his loving words were all for me, but he was always exceptionally good with women. If he wanted something from a woman, he knew exactly what to say and how to say it.
This is one of the reasons I'm such a big proponent of teaching kids about the warning signs of abuse before they're even dating. Abusers are usually charming at first, just long enough to get you trapped (which is one reason why coming on strong and fast is one of those red flags, so they can drop the act asap). But the warning signs are also usually there. Unfortunately, instead of being cautious when someone instantly declares love, wants to keep tabs on their partner's whereabouts, and gets jealous if someone else even looks at their "beloved," too many young people take those things as romantic, as evidence of utter devotion. As part of the charm.
But that's far from the whole problem, of course. If Mildred Muhammad had seen the red flags and gotten out before she fell for her ex-husband, someone else would have. And despite how much this society still likes to wonder what the victims did to "provoke" their partners' abuse, the reality is, people who would abuse one partner are likely to abuse any partner. And if they're never stopped — if no one listens when a victim says she's afraid for her life — some of those will go on to kill: their girlfriends, their wives, their children, bystanders. Or even, apparently, 10 perfect strangers.