The ex-wife of 2002 D.C. sniper John Muhammad, who was executed for killing at least 10 people, thanked a spellbound packed audience of social workers during Jackson State University’s 15th Annual Mississippi Child Welfare Institute Conference “for taking the time to learn everything you need in order to help us survive.”
Mildred Muhammad was the keynote speaker at the event sponsored by the School of Social Work in the College of Public Service in the downtown Marriott on Friday, Feb. 10. She told the professionals, “A lot of us may not get the chance to come back and tell you what you’ve done or to tell you how much your words and actions have encouraged us to move forward.”
She described how she survived after persistent threats against her life by ex-husband John. Before he was killed, John had warned that he could “take a small city, terrorize it and they would think it would be a group of people, and it would only be me.”UNFORTUNATELY, the saga continued for three weeks before John, notoriously labeled the Beltway sniper, was apprehended along with his 17-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, a Jamaican native.
Mildred said she had learned from federal authorities that she was the apparent intended target and shared that “domestic violence does not have a religion, race or gender. It can happen to anybody.”
Although having found peace, Mildred said she still regrets that innocent people were killed with gunfire by John, a former U.S. Army veteran whose active-duty mission was to go into enemy territory, seek out bridges and roads that the enemy may cross, blow up the structures and then leave quietly. During his military service, he also had earned distinction as a skilled marksman.
Although many people know of John as a mass murderer, most are unfamiliar with the explicit details of how Mildred and her family suffered through the traumatic and violent ordeal. She endured scandalous name-calling and “victim-blaming” by those who lost friends and loved ones, and from others who lived near the shootings and feared daily for their own lives. Mercilessly, some people verbally attacked Mildred, accusing her of bringing the terror to the East Coast and creating a trail for John to hunt her down after she abandoned her Washington state home for refuge in the D.C. area.
“If you had stayed on the West Coast, the innocent people on the East Coast would still be alive,” some angry critics bemoaned. Others said, “How dare you call you and your children victims when none of you was killed or injured.”
Through it all, Mildred survived threats against her life by her madman ex-husband and near starvation that was prompted by depression when John kidnapped her three children for 18 months. He had taken them to Antigua – an island in the West Indies in the Caribbean, where John met Malvo, his partner in crime.FOR weeks, a depressed Mildred could stomach only half-slices of bread and crushed ice as she worried about her children. Ultimately, she collapsed, was hospitalized and learned that she had lost three units of blood because “my cycle wouldn’t turn off.”
Mildred told the captive audience that most times there are campaigns to bring your attention to domestic violence only when it’s associated with physical scars. “That’s used as the shock-and-awe effect.”
She distinguished between domestic violence and domestic abuse.
“The violence crosses over once there is a physical assault. It could be pushing, hitting, slapping, spitting in the face – anything that could demean persons and cause them to lose their self-esteem and isolate themselves from families.” In contrast, she said, domestic abuse is verbal, psychological, spiritual, economics and stalking.
“All of us know somebody who is or was a victim of domestic abuse because it is an epidemic. Eighty percent of victims do not have physical scars to prove they are victims. You could be sitting next to one and not even know it.”MILDRED said the abused often don’t tell others they’re being victimized because the first thing some people ask is “why you don’t leave?”
Furthermore, she said, “It’s easier for you to … blame the victim for staying. And, it’s harder for you to confront the abuser. … People are quick to tell victims what they need to do.”
To those who say they want to help, she suggests people first ask themselves three questions: 1) What will you do?; 2) What won’t you do?; and 3) What can’t you do? Then ask how can you help.
Just as important, she said, “If you can’t do anything, give (the abused) the number to resources.”“Don’t reinjure people who are traumatized.” — Mildred MuhammadMildred said most people believe that victims of domestic violence are not good decision-makers. That’s untrue, she said. In fact, “I made it out alive. I got up the next day. I went to work. My children are in school. I’m making rational decisions. … We have to be mindful of the words we use when we reach out to other people whether they’re victims of domestic violence or any other types of abuse. … Don’t reinjure people who are traumatized,” she advised.
Dr. Theresia Johnson-Ratliff, a JSU clinical associate professor and MSW program field director, said Mildred Muhammad shed light on the legal ramifications that victims and children experience.
She said communities and agencies “must work together to protect families and children.” Johnson-Ratliff reiterated support for victims and cautioned against the tendency to become judgmental or prone to one’s own perceptions that might lead a person to ignore the needs of the abused.
Meanwhile, after suggesting ways to help the abused, Mildred painted a vivid yet horrid picture of her nightmare.SHE said the problems started after John was deployed to Desert Storm – the 1990 Gulf War combat against Iraq in defense of Saudi Arabia. Although John did not experience any military action, he returned home three months later with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Mildred recalls that before that mission her then-husband had always been “the life of the party, jovial. Everybody wanted to be around him. But when he came back, he didn’t want anybody to know what was going on inside his head. … He was different. He would sit in the corner, rocking back and forth.”
Mildred is quick to point out that “PTSD is not a reason to commit a criminal act.”
While they were in Germany, John decided to exit the military in the early 1990s and the couple started their own business. It was called Express Car-Truck Mechanic – a mobile auto repair company that would fix vehicles in one day. “Because we had more female customers than males, John felt he needed to be the surrogate father of all of the children whose fathers were absent.”“A lot of us may not get the chance to come back and tell you what you’ve done or to tell you how much your words and actions have encouraged us to move forward.” — Mildred Muhammad’s message to social workersMildred would soon discover that John was having multiple affairs and asked for a divorce. John bristled at that suggestion. However, the couple eventually became estranged.
Although they lived separately, John would use his key to enter their home in the middle of the night. “I lay in the bed with my eye open to a slither. I watched him walk in the room, stand at the head of the bed, walk around the bed and lean over to listen to me breathe. Then, he would leave.” She said he did this three times.
She told her children she was going to change the locks because she misplaced her key. One of the children innocently shared the plan with John, who was unhappy with the decision. John suggested to Mildred that he would resolve the matter with the lost key himself since his key was malfunctioning anyway. However, Mildred would later discover that John had sabotaged the lock by secretly inserting a straight pin inside the mechanism to give the impression that there was an issue. With John and the lock gone for three days, Mildred propped a chair underneath the doorknob and sat in the chair with a knife to protect her, her mom and three children until a locksmith resolved the issue.
Then, she noticed her phone hadn’t been ringing. She picked up the receiver to check for a dial tone then hung up. Immediately, the phone rang. It was a friend of hers. Mildred asked the friend what number she had dialed, and the friend said, “I can’t give you this number. John gave me the number to call and check on you and the children, and that’s what I’m doing. … You know I’m scared of John. I can’t give you this number.” The friend hung up abruptly.MILDRED called the phone company and had the number changed twice in one day, and, each time, John would call seconds later. Mildred would discover that John had persuaded a woman at the phone company to give him the new number. John then demanded to Mildred, “Don’t change it again.” She ignored him and, after some persistence, Mildred was able to secure a code from a representative from the phone company to prevent John’s interference.
Visitation rights became the next matter for the couple. The couple agreed on a schedule. But one day, John came unannounced and bolted into the home, causing Mildred to hit her head on the fireplace. Mildred called police, but because his name was on the lease, the police said there was nothing they could do. They urged her to file for a restraining order.
John told Mildred he was not going to allow her to raise the children by herself. He said, “You have become my enemy. And, as my enemy, I will kill you.”
She went to court for the restraining order, and the judge told her, “You need to get away from this guy.” He granted her a lifetime restraining order.
They proceeded with visitation, but on a birthday of Mildred’s mother, John missed the curfew for returning the children. After promising he would be there within an hour, John reneged. This time he refused to call, despite Mildred “blowing up his pager” during an era when cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now.
She called the children’s school every day before finally visiting, hoping they would be there. They weren’t. A teacher approached her to see what was going on. An emotionally wrecked Mildred said, “John kidnapped my children.”
Mildred went home and, as she approached, her mother saw her from a distance and wailed hysterically at such a high-pitch that not even Mildred had experienced before. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Mildred managed to catch the children’s grandmother just before the grandmother tumbled onto the ground. “He took our babies; he took our babies,” Mildred’s mother screamed.
Mildred did not receive help from any of her friends. Matter of fact, some had the audacity to say, “John told us you were going to be talking about him like this.” Mildred said they automatically defended him. Then, other friends said to her “at least you just get to cook for one. Snap out of it. Why you tripping? At least they’re with their father.”SOON thereafter, Mildred was hospitalized. While there, the phone rang. It was John. He said, “How you doing?” Mildred asked, “Why don’t you let the children call?”
John’s response was “we don’t always get what we want, do we?”
Mildred hung up the phone and screamed. The nurse rushed in to see what was wrong. Mildred asked if the call could be traced. It was traced to a woman who called for John, so they both could find out where Mildred was.
Mildred’s mother alerted her daughter that John had just called to say he was on his way to kill Mildred. The hospital moved her into a different room and posted a guard outside her door. A social worker visited her and told Mildred, “You can’t go home. We have to hide you. So, I need you to do three things. Number 1, we will give you different clothes so no one will know that it’s you. Two, you have to disconnect from everybody that you know. … Number 3, you have to change your name.” Mildred’s “safe name” became Millie.“How dare you call you and your children victims when none of you was killed or injured.” — East Coast detractors At nightfall, she was escorted stealthily to the back door of the hospital into a waiting car. She slouched down to avoid being spotted because “I knew it was going to be head shot,” believing that if John were nearby he would take aim at one of the most vulnerable parts of the body.
She said John’s motto was “One shot, one kill to the head. Never leave an enemy behind.” Mildred said, “As we were driving down the road, I was looking at the rooftops; I was looking for the open windows because I knew I was dead.”
As Mildred lie low out of plain view, the driver intentionally had created the appearance of a labyrinth of passageways, thus giving Mildred a false impression of a faraway site. She said she didn’t realize it until much later, but the shelter that she was taken to was actually “just right across the street.”
While in hiding at the shelter, she noticed a television commercial for an online professional career development. Mildred applied, with the goal of learning about law. She enrolled in paralegal courses. After the YWCA learned that she earned straight-A’s, Mildred was asked to join its legal department. She accepted and was transported in disguise at 3 a.m.
As she helped other victims, she worked at getting her own life together, too, by securing a writ of habeas corpus to have her children returned no matter where they might be found. Her papers were certified and notarized.IN 2001, her sister called from Maryland to inform her that their mother was ill. Mildred went there to assist. While in the area, Mildred filed a restraining order in a D.C. court on a “full faith and credit” protection order “so that it could have the same power from Washington state to the D.C. metro area.”
Mildred then called the FBI to tell them “my children are kidnapped, and they’re out of the country.” An agent asked her what led her to assume the children were no longer in the U.S. Mildred indicated that a cousin, who was a private investigator, suggested that “when the trail runs cold that it means the people you’re looking for are no longer in the country.” So the agent took her writ of habeas corpus, divorce decree, pictures of the children and of John and said he would be in touch.
Two weeks later, all her paperwork was returned in the mail with a message declining to assist. Instead, she was referred to the FBI in Seattle because it was an ongoing case there. She was given the name of an agent to contact. Mildred shared information about threats on her life and her children’s kidnapping. With proud confidence, the agent said, “Well, Miss Muhammad, since we know he’s looking for you we’re going to put you in the middle of a parking lot and use you as a decoy. This way we can lure him out.”
Mildred said, “Excuse me! It’s gonna be a head shot. You’re not going to know which way the bullet came from.”
The agent said, “We’re just trying to help you out.”
Instantly, Mildred hung up the phone.ON Aug. 30, 2001, Mildred said she received a call from the executive director of the FBI in Washington, D.C., informing her that her children had been located and to fax over all her paperwork.
The next day, the agent informed her that her children had been rescued.
Mildred returned to Tacoma, Wash., for an emergency custody hearing with an attorney from the YWCA. John was also present.
Because Mildred’s paperwork was in perfect order, the judge awarded her custody.“Eighty percent of victims do not have physical scars to prove they are victims. You could be sitting next to one and not even know it.” — Mildred MuhammadAfter John left the court first, Mildred and her attorney celebrated and then exited into the hallway. With her back turned toward her attorney, Mildred said she felt an ominous presence emerging. Turning to notice John approaching, she frightfully dashed down the hallway. Her attorney and their other acquaintance sped off, too, at a breakneck pace as if their lives were in imminent danger, too.
When John yelled “gotcha!” that’s when Mildred’s attorney said to her, “Hell, nah! You’re leaving here tonight.”
All three quickly exited the courthouse for the social service office, where she was finally reunited with her three children. As she burst into tears embracing them, the other adults – still trembling – reminded her there was no time to tarry because “the man’s trying to kill you. We need to go.”
They piled into a vehicle, heading to the YWCA. Mildred called her mother to share the news about the reunion with the children. “I got them. I got them,” she told her mom.
Her ailing mother said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Unfortunately, Mildred’s mother died before the grandchildren could see her again. This angered the grandchildren.
Mildred told them “grandmom held on long enough to make sure you guys were back with me. And, once she knew you were safe, then she let go. So, don’t be upset with her.”AFTER nightfall, the family exited to the basement of the YWCA and entered into a waiting vehicle en route to BWI airport in Maryland.
As she fast-forwarded to the shooting rampage, Mildred said an alert was issued for two Caucasians in a white-boxed truck. So, she said, “I’m looking for that, and I’m looking for John.”
In early October 2002, Mildred said one of her co-workers expressed having a “bad feeling” after noticing a dark-colored vehicle in her cul-de-sac. Mildred said, “Girl, don’t worry about that. Let’s just go to work.” However, after they passed the car, the driver looked at them but the passenger shielded his face with a newspaper. Mildred then alerted police about a “dark-colored Caprice or Impala with New Jersey plates and two African-American males.”
Mildred said on Oct. 23, some men knocked on her door asking if Mildred Muhammad was inside. Uneasy and highly suspicious, a cautious Mildred answered, saying, “Nah. She ain’t here.”
They revealed themselves as agents of the FBI and CIA, declaring they needed to speak to Mildred about her ex-husband. Feeling more at ease, she recanted her statement by acknowledging she was, in fact, Mildred Muhammad.
They asked her to share when was the last time she saw John. Mildred acknowledged that it was at their emergency custody hearing in Tacoma in 2001. Then, she was asked to accompany them to the police station to answer questions. Mildred refused, fearing that they wanted her to identify John, whom she believed would try to kill her there.AGENTS assured Mildred that they did not have John in custody but needed to ask her some questions. When she was unable to corroborate evidence about a mysterious recording with a foreign accent or the handwriting of a note that was attached to a tree, she was told in the interrogation room that her ex-husband would be named as the suspected sniper.
They asked, “Do you think he would do anything like that.”
Mildred raised her head, paused briefly and said, “Yeahhhh.”
The agents then said, “Miss Muhammad, didn’t you know you were the target?” They then told her about a man down the street from her house who was shot six times and another man who was shot in the abdomen. … Would you like to go into protective custody?”
Mildred said, “You got to ask me that?”
The agents said, “Well, some people don’t want to go.”
“Have you caught him yet?” Mildred asked.
“And you still have to ask me?”
Finally, Mildred said, “Yes, I want to go into protective custody, but I have to go home and get my children.”THE family found refuge in a hotel, where they watched television broadcasts about the shootings and an image of John as the primary suspect. The children cried themselves to sleep. Now, it was Mildred’s turn to deal with the pain. She grabbed a pillow, entered the bathroom, turned on the water in the tub and the sink, sat on the floor, and then screamed and sobbed into the pillow.
The following day, John was apprehended, and the agents told her she was no longer in imminent danger, but “before you go, you’ve got to pay for that food you and your children ate.”
A stunned Mildred said, “What! I thought we were in protective custody.”
An agent said, “You were, but we didn’t say we would feed you.”
So, Mildred paid $248.75 before she and her children were allowed to leave.
The ordeal triggered a need for counseling, but Mildred opted to handle the therapy herself after unscrupulous attempts by some people to profit from the family’s tragic experience. Instead, she relied on a book from the library.
Despite the turmoil unleashed by her ex-husband, she said she has never spoken negatively about John to her children.
Mildred then recounted the period when John was slated to be executed. The children requested to speak to their father. She didn’t try to deny them of that opportunity and sought to arrange a conversation with John’s attorney. She said John, however, refused to participate. Another time, she even contacted the warden to try to set up a meeting with John and the children. The caveat was that because the children were underage, she would have to accompany them.
That’s when Mildred decided to draw the line. “No, no, no, no!” she declared. “We gonna find another way to make that happen.” Again, John refused to cooperate.JOHN’S attorney suggested a phone conversation with the children right before John would enter the death chamber. Once more, John resisted.
In November 2009, Mildred said the children were again overcome with grief after news hit that John had been executed by lethal injection. (In 2004, Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder, terrorism and firearms charges.)
So, when the aftermath of the tragedy impacted Mildred’s career and prevented her from getting a job, she founded “After the Trauma,” which is credited for moving women from abusive relationships into safe environments. Mildred told the audience if you can’t find a job then create one.
Today, her son, 21, is an assistant manager for a jewelry store, and her two daughters, 24 and 25, studied vocal performance and sing classical music in eight different languages.
As for her own healing, Mildred said it resulted primarily from talking to God, even though she wrote a journal as a form of therapy. “My journal accepted everything. It didn’t talk back to me. It didn’t tell me I was crazy,” Mildred said. She described her 2009 memoir as a journal, calling it “The Mildred Muhammad Story: Scared Silent – When the One You Love … Becomes the One You Fear.”