Chapter One: "We Have a Problem"
Terry Ryan worked the early shift on Wednesday, October 2. It had been a glorious Indian summer day. In the suburbs of the nation's capital, the temperature nearly hit ninety degrees; the sky was clear as a bell.
Early in the evening, it was still warm, and Ryan was kicking back with a beer while his daughters finished up their Irish dancing over at the Knights of Columbus. Ryan loved the time away from the job, the time with family and friends. In a normal year, whatever that was, he and his colleagues in the Montgomery County Police Department wouldn't catch too many of the heartbreak cases that cops in the District, just across the Maryland line, did. But working homicides, Ryan had seen more than his share of tragedy. Almost always, it started with a phone call. The thought had no sooner finished rattling around in his head when Ryan's cell phone rang.
He paused, then answered it.
"We have a problem." It was a colleague, a detective from homicide.
Ryan, a forty-one-year-old strapping guy with closely cropped hair, listened intently. At 5:20 P.M., a single rifle shot had punched a nickel-size hole in the front window of a Michaels craft store in a strip mall in nearby Aspen Hill. The store wasn't crowded, and no one had been hurt. But forty-four minutes later, at 6:04 P.M., a man was shot and killed as he walked in the parking lot of the Shoppers Food Warehouse. This was in another mall, just two miles away.
Ryan's antenna went up. Days, weeks went by without a shooting. In the past year, Montgomery County had recorded just nineteen murders. "You around if we need you tonight?" the detective asked Ryan.
"Yeah, sure, if there's a problem, gimme a yell." Ryan rang off. A little while later, the girls finished their dancing. Not long after that, he helped tuck them in, all the while listening for the chirp of the cell phone, but it was silent the rest of the night. Finally, Ryan went to bed. It would be his last good night's sleep for nearly a month.
The next morning's Washington Post gave the shooting in the parking lot at the Shoppers Food Warehouse just five sentences on B2, in the Metro section. Another tragic shooting in a big, busy metropolis.
The shooting at Michaels didn't merit a mention.
At Montgomery County's bustling police headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, a burble of voices dominated the 6:30 a.m roll call. Everyone had a theory. Were the shootings the work of some screwball with a rifle? Teenagers messing with Dad's gun? Do we have a problem?
Patrol officers, detectives and higher-ups batted around competing theories. There was no consensus, except on one point: Yeah, they had a problem all right. Definitely.
Michaels is a cheery bazaar for hobbyists and semiambitious do-it-yourselfers. It sells silk flowers, wicker baskets, wreaths for almost any occasion. It's a place you'd expect to find glue guns -- not rifles. Located at Northgate Plaza, a tired strip mall with other slightly down-market tenants like Dollar Place and Classic Consignment, the craft store seemed an unlikely target for a deliberate shooting of any kind. The rare customer unhappy with his purchase was cheerfully issued a refund or allowed to make an exchange. Who, in any case, would want to shoot up a craft shop?
Ann Chapman certainly had no idea. She had just finished ringing up a customer the night before, she told detectives, when she heard a sound like a large firecracker. At first, she thought it was a light bulb exploding. But then something whooshed past her ear, even pouffed her hair a bit. It blew out the light at register No. 5, sailed through a few cardboard display stands and finally lodged in the rear wall, in the framing department. When she learned it was a bullet, it took Chapman hours before she could stop shaking.
The detectives spared Chapman their conclusion: probably a missed head shot. OK, Ryan thought, but by whom? Why?
The Shoppers Food Warehouse is a popular discount supermarket in Wheaton, Maryland, across the county from Terry Ryan's desk at police headquarters. Open twenty-four hours a day, it's just two miles south of the Michaels store, down Georgia Avenue, a busy highway lined by endless strip malls, at the intersection with Randolph Road, another overtaxed suburban thoroughfare whose endless rush-hour traffic leaves defeated commuters leaning hopelessly on their horns.
Detectives trying to reconstruct the events of the night before focused on what appeared to be the only decent lead they had: the victim. James Martin had stopped at the Shoppers Food Warehouse to buy snacks and sodas for his son's church group and a pet elementary school mentoring program. A fifty-five-year-old program analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a family man, Martin was active in Boy Scouts and on the board of his Methodist church. In the cubicle environment around the NOAA office, where he worked on quarterly reports, agency business plans and diversity programs, Martin was known as a guy who would give you a pat on the back or tell a few jokes when the job got stressful. Martin, his colleagues said, was a guy you could count on.
Which, to those who knew him best, was not surprising. Martin had grown up in a family in rural Missouri that knew little but hard times. His father had died when he was eight, and his mother took in laundry to pay the bills. "His mother loved him dearly," said his widow, Billie Martin. "He idolized her. They didn't have a lot, but they had a lot emotionally." He worked his way through Southeast Missouri State University as a short-order cook and picking up other odd jobs. He joined the Navy and was stationed in Washington during the Vietnam War, helping families whose boys were in the jungle. Then, he went to work on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide.
Well-read, Martin was a Civil War buff and amateur genealogist who once went to the National Archives to get an ancestor's Army pay records. He was a natural storyteller who liked collecting old pictures, old books, old cans, old bottles -- "the older," a friend said, "the better." He had married Billie fifteen years ago, after meeting her a few years earlier at a
St. Patrick's Day gathering. He was devoted to her and to their eleven-year-old son, Ben. Quietly, he had been writing his own family's history and planned to share it with Ben someday. "He was wealthy in terms of family and friends, but very modest in terms of flaunting anything," said a friend, Larry Gaffigan. "He never thought of himself first." Said Billie Martin, "He came from a background where he was not well off, but he was well loved. It was very important to him that he, his son and I be involved in our community so we could share that with other people."
To that end, Martin had thrown himself into an office project of adopting a local school, Shepherd Elementary, in Washington, D.C., judging the science fair and arranging for the donation of ten old NOAA computers for special-education students. When the school district bureaucracy didn't move fast enough, Martin simply loaded the computers, monitors, and keyboards himself and brought them to the school in a pickup truck. "He had a sense of urgency," said Shepherd teacher LaShahn Booth. "He felt seriously that if these kids had the same technology as their suburban counterparts, the playing field would be leveled." Teachers teased Martin, saying he should have gone into teaching, but he preferred helping out quietly. "He didn't want the glory," Booth says. "This was a guy behind the scenes who was really working for the kids. Just an extremely good Samaritan. He wanted to give because he was so blessed. He was from the heart."
When Martin pulled in to the Shoppers Food Warehouse, the parking lot was jammed. After finding a space, he ambled down the sloping lot toward the store. It isn't known whether he even heard the shot that felled him. The .223-caliber slug ripped through his back, punching him forward. Security cameras caught Martin clutching his chest, but that was it.
The cops were stumped. From every perspective, Martin had been a model citizen. Devoted husband and father. Valued and dedicated employee. Reviewing the scant facts that had been pulled together overnight, Terry Ryan couldn't see it. With no crime-scene leads and no eyewitnesses, the detectives did what detectives do in such cases: look at the victim. What was it about James Martin that would cause somebody to want to put a bullet in him in a suburban shopping mall? The answer, early that Thursday morning, was nothing. Not a goddamn thing.
That morning, a number of officers were getting ready to go to the funeral of fellow cop Bill Foust, who had had a heart attack. Ryan had barely finished his first cup of coffee when he got a call from patrol supervisor Dave Anderson. It was just after 8 A.M.
"We got another one," Anderson barked.
The location was a Mobil station on the corner of a traffic-choked intersection, just a couple of parking lots away from Michaels.
Mechanic Warren Shifflet had been drinking a cup of coffee curbside, keeping an eye out for the inevitable fender bender in the rush-hour traffic. Alex Millhouse, another mechanic, was chatting on the pay phone in front of the station. Neither saw a thing.
The victim was Premkumar A. Walekar. A regular, he had stopped by the station that morning to fill up his taxicab. Born in Pune, India, about one hundred miles from Bombay, where he grew up, Walekar had come to the United States back in 1968, eager to go to college.
Walekar had done well, attending classes part-time at Montgomery College while working part-time at a Hot Shoppes restaurant. Shy but hardworking, Walekar eventually quit school to work full-time, taking a job driving a truck for a magazine distributor, picking up the bundles at 4 A.M. and delivering them to stores on his route. He loved to cook and worked nights as a short-order man. Every month, he sent money home to India. Once, he sent so much that his father was able to buy his own cab instead of renting one.
For all his hard work, Walekar had been richly rewarded. Years before, his brother, Vijay, had sent him a photo from India of his girlfriend's sister, Margaret. Premkumar Walekar fell in love. He came to India to meet her. He and Margaret were married two days later. Through the years, they had two children, twenty-four-year-old Andrea and twenty-three-year-old Andrew. In September, they had celebrated their twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. They had bought a house back in Pune, Walekar's hometown in India, where they planned to retire in the not-too-distant future. They had planned to move after their daughter graduated from the University of Maryland, soon to be the first in the family with an American college degree. At fifty-four, Walekar had love, family, security -- all the rewards a beneficent God could bestow. So who would want to shoot him? Who would want him dead?
That morning, Walekar started his day early -- something he never did. He passed Margaret at a traffic light, she on her way home from her night nursing job, he on his way to the Mobil station. They waved to each other.
At the Mobil station, Walekar bought a lottery ticket and put five dollars' worth of gas into the tank of his gray Presidential cab at pump No. 7. Suddenly, the drone of rush-hour traffic was rent by a shot.
At the pay phone, mechanic Alex Millhouse quickly told his friend, "I gotta go -- someone's been hurt."
Standing at the rear of his cab, Walekar looked stunned. Blood stained his shirt and pants. He staggered a dozen feet, then gasped. "Call an ambulance," he told a woman in a minivan. Then he slumped against her van, smearing it with blood before falling to the ground. "He's been shot, he's been shot!" shouted the woman, a doctor. She started CPR.
It was no use.
Cpl. Paul Kukucka was stopped at a red light at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue when he saw a woman running from the Mobil station, waving her arms. "This man has just been shot!" she screamed. Kukucka pulled his squad car over, ran to Walekar lying on the pavement, and helped with chest compressions.
The time: 8:12 A.M.
After the call from Anderson, Terry Ryan pulled on his bulletproof vest. He was headed to the door when Gene Curtis, another detective, got a call. He grabbed the receiver, listened for a second, then motioned frantically for Ryan to wait. Another one, Curtis signaled.
Ryan's eyes blazed.
What the hell was going on?
The shooting had taken place at 7:41 A.M., thirty-one minutes before Premkumar Walekar was murdered and just five miles from the Mobil station.
The victim was James L. Buchanan Jr. Known as "Sonny" to just about everyone, the thirty-nine-year-old former landscaper had a ready grin and a big heart. He mentored kids and believed, corny as he knew others thought it sounded, that helping the less fortunate would make society a better place. A member of the regional board of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington for about a decade, Buchanan regularly pitched in with holiday parties and ran the annual Christmas-tree lot, staying out in the cold all night. He gave one kid money to help him through college. "He wanted to be there for the kids," said Tim Sheahan, executive vice president of Boys and Girls Club. "He spent active time with the kids -- whatever was best for the kids."
Buchanan had gotten a business degree at the University of Maryland. For years, he had run a landscaping business out of the house he shared with his mother and a sister. More recently, he had moved to the mountains of Virginia to help his father, a retired Montgomery County police officer, build a dream home near the tree farm he owned. Buchanan wasn't married, but he had found a woman he loved.
Buchanan had gotten out of the landscape business months earlier but was doing a favor for a longtime customer, a family-run auto dealership on Rockville Pike, one of the county's most congested streets. He was pushing his green Lawn-Boy mower over a narrow strip of grass behind the dealership when there was a bang, like a piece of steel hitting the pavement. A parking lot attendant saw Buchanan stagger through the chain-link gate, clutching his chest. He stumbled nearly one hundred yards before he fell to his knees, facedown. "Someone call 911!" the attendant yelled. Body shop manager Gary Huss checked to see if Buchanan was breathing, then saw blood pooling around him. Buchanan was dead on arrival at nearby Suburban Hospital. Doctors initially called it an "industrial accident."
A Montgomery County patrol officer at the hospital wasn't buying it. He called Detective Gene Curtis. "You guys need to get down here," the cop said. "This doesn't look like a lawn mower accident."
Terry Ryan was en route to the Mobil station when his radio crackled. A motorist had reported a suicide. Time: 8:37 A.M.
A woman sitting on a blue metal bench on International Drive near Georgia Avenue in front of a Crisp & Juicy chicken restaurant apparently had committed suicide. Detective Jim Drewry volunteered to check it out. He arrived minutes later and recognized the obvious: This was no suicide.
Sarah Ramos had finished a year of law school in El Salvador when she immigrated to the United States with her husband, Carlos Cruz, a professor of economics, finance, and calculus in their native country. That was two years ago. Carlos had been reluctant to move to the United States, but she convinced him that the opportunities would be greater for their seven-year-old son, Carlos Jr. Sarah wanted to make sure her son got a good education. At thirty-four, she had finally come to terms with how difficult such transitions had been. Carlos Sr. still spoke limited English. He worked part-time in a grocery, at night. Sarah hoped one day to become a lawyer, but she supported the family through baby-sitting and housekeeping jobs. They lived with her sister, but Sarah hoped her family would have their own place one day, as they had back in El Salvador. "She had plans for the future," said a niece, Rhina Villatoro. "She was always planning. She felt she needed to work hard to make them happen."
Always smiling, Sarah Ramos was a warm wife, a caring mother, and a trustworthy nanny and housecleaner for several families. "She didn't speak much English, but she was quite a presence," says Larry Gaffigan, who had employed Ramos as a housekeeper. "Kids loved her."
She was deeply religious and very involved in her Catholic church. Just two weeks earlier, she had attended a weekend retreat and come back so spiritually moved that she inspired family members to be more religious. Weeks later, her family found a poem she had written at that retreat, thanking God for her family and asking him not to abandon her husband and son. "It was as if she had a vision she would be leaving," said Gaffigan.
Wearing jeans, Sarah Ramos was sitting in her usual Thursday morning spot -- the bench near the retirement community Leisure World in Silver Spring, Maryland, where her employer picked her up for work -- reading a book, her purse by her side. A single high-powered bullet slammed through her head, then through the window of the Crisp & Juicy. A landscaper working nearby told police officers he saw a white box truck with black lettering drive through the parking lot, pass the victim, and head north on Georgia Avenue. There were two people inside, he said.
The cops asked more about the white box truck.
Detective Terry Ryan paced the parking lot at the Mobil station, trying to piece things together. It was a little confusing because Premkumar Walekar's body had already been removed, and officers had to rely on conflicting accounts from witnesses and paramedics. In a shirt and tie, Ryan kept looking around him. Every so often, he told a passerby, "This is not a good place to be."
Copyright © 2003 by U.S. News & World Report, L.P.