FREDERICK — Something happened to John Allen Muhammad in Saudi Arabia that fundamentally changed the man who once had been the “life of the party,” his ex-wife said.
When he returned in 1991 after a three-month tour in the Army, Muhammad distanced himself from others; he was confused, pondering his direction in life, according to Mildred Muhammad. She believes untreated post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by that deployment may have been a catalyst for the bloody rampage that gripped the region more than a decade later.
“I think if he would have allowed himself to be treated or to let someone know he needed treatment, then it would not have been like this,” Mildred Muhammad said Tuesday in an interview with The Frederick News-Post.
Wearing a black suit with a veil covering her dark hair, she detailed years of emotional abuse in front of a crowd gathered at Fort Detrick to help mark the post’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“Most people don’t know that I was the intended target,” Mildred Muhammad said.
Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of the first in a series of deadly attacks by the duo who came to be known as the D.C. Snipers.
John Allen Muhammad and his teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, killed 10 people and injured three others during a three-week reign of terror that paralyzed the region. Some residents were afraid to leave their homes for fear they’d be shot on the way to work or school, or while pumping gas.
The two were arrested in Frederick County on Oct. 24, 2002, after their blue Chevrolet Caprice was spotted at a rest stop off I-70 near Myersville.
Malvo remains in a Virginia prison. He recently told The Washington Post that he regretted his actions. In 2006, Malvo testified that the arrest stopped the pair’s plan to continue their trail of murder to an Outback Steakhouse on the Golden Mile stretch of U.S. 40.
John Allen Muhammad was executed in Virginia in 2009.
Before he became known as a murderous mastermind, John Allen Muhammad stalked and terrorized his wife, kidnapping the couple’s three children and repeatedly threatening to kill Mildred Muhammad, she said. After the couple split in 1999, he would enter her home uninvited. She would change her phone number; he would find it.
Soon after a Washington state judge granted Mildred Muhammad custody of the couple’s three children in 2001, John Allen Muhammad followed his ex-wife across the country, she said, tracking her to the D.C. suburbs, where she had moved to help her sister care for their ailing mother.
Before the attacks began, Mildred Muhammad recalled, she saw a blue Caprice parked in a cul-de-sac near where she was living.
“Before the shootings happened, I was already looking for John,” she said. “I was looking at rooftops, I was scanning levees. I wouldn’t allow anybody too close to me because it was my way of protecting them.”
Mildred Muhammad remembered her ex-husband as an expert shot. She dialed up her divorce date in a strong voice with similar precision: Oct. 6, 2000.
She had a tough time finding help because she was not physically abused. But domestic abuse does not have to manifest itself through scars, she said.
Muhammad now works with victims of domestic violence and abuse, and she has established a nonprofit called After the Trauma. She has also published a book about her ordeal, “Scared Silent.”
Fort Detrick Garrison Commander Col. Allan Darden said he was overwhelmed by Muhammad’s talk. Before introducing her Tuesday, he said domestic violence had led to the deaths of two of his cousins.
“The PTSD made perfect sense to me, the domestic piece made sense to me, the withdrawal,” Darden said of Muhammad’s remarks.
Darden remembers watching coverage of the sniper shootings while stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
“It was terrifying just to watch,” he said.
Mildred Muhammad did not shield her three children, now 22, 20 and 19, from the news coverage of their father’s trial or his subsequent execution. As his execution date neared, the children asked to speak with him. John Allen Muhammad was initially uncooperative, but he then relented and agreed to a call.
“That call never came,” Mildred Muhammad said.
The children attended their father’s funeral; she did not.
Muhammad has been open and honest with her children about their father, she said.
“I needed them to know what people were saying about their dad,” she said, “so they would not be caught off guard.”
Her eldest, a son, just graduated from college, and her two daughters attend school in Ohio. Both girls sing opera “in eight different languages,” she said.
Mildred Muhammad still lives in Maryland — she said she has no communication with Malvo. She did not spend much time thinking about his recent admission of regret.
“I can’t get into his head,” she said.
Muhammad said she has become resilient and doesn’t take personally the blame that is sometimes lobbed at her by people who say she drew John Allen Muhammad here, inflicting his rage on the community.
“I’m not responsible for what John did,” she said. “I don’t take responsibility for it. Unfortunately, neither did he.”