“…you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”
– Mark Jenkins
In 2002, my friend shot and killed 11 people, was linked to 10 more and injured three others. He terrorized over a half-dozen states with murders, woundings and a climate of fear that descended over the Washington Metropolitan Area for three weeks. People stayed home from work, kept their children out of school, avoided going on daily errands – all for fear that my friend would find them.
Now when I say friend, I should also say I don’t mean that I supported his actions – not even remotely. Just like everyone else in the country, I had no idea who was responsible during that October in 2002. I saw the reports on the news; I listened in on the radio on my way to and from school every morning. On the west coast, in my small town of Puyallup, Washington, we felt insulated from the events unfolding across the nation. Having been born in Tacoma in the 80s and having grown up just a few miles out of town, I was no strangers to gun violence – but at least we didn’t have a sniper running around killing people from cover at 300 meters with a civilian version of an M16. To this day, I’m not convinced the man who killed those people was the man I knew. Surely, they occupied the same body as the body of evidence proved – but I maintain that the man I knew died long before his execution; long, even, before he committed those heinous crimes.
I knew John Allen Muhammad for years before those attacks took place. His calm and friendly demeanor often warmed my family’s household. I met him around 1995. I was just into sixth grade. My parents had bought an old Volvo for my sister’s 16th birthday that spring and needed a guy who would help them fix it up and take care of the rest of our family’s cars. We had a brand new Beagle puppy named Cody. John would sometimes bring treats for him and greet him warmly at the door as Cody stood up against him. He knew all of our names: Bill, Andi, Katie, James, Britt… he had a special name for my older sister Jenny. First, he called her JennyPenny, then later simply Penny.
We couldn’t know that John was planning something abominable. We couldn’t know that he would later preach a holocaust of anger and death against white people. People like us. Could the man that offered me advice about life, and struggle, and God, really shoot a boy not much younger than me in the gut on his way to school?
That is a question I’ve tried to answer for over a decade. Two months ago was the 10-year anniversary of his murder spree. Last month was the third anniversary of his execution by lethal-injection. I’ve always wondered what happened to my friend that died twice.
1. John Allen Williams
“Hi there, I’m John. I’m here about the Mitsubishi,” said the tall man at the door. He was African-American with deep brown eyes, clothed in a charcoal grey jumpsuit spotted with black grease stains, and wore gigantic steel toe boots. At twelve, I was taller than most of my class, but this man towered over me. He smelled of oil and gasoline, but there was also a warm smell that even today I recall but could never identify. “Is your father here?” he asked, looking down at me.
“Dad! The mechanic’s here!” I called, my voice filling the vaulted living room that the narrow foyer led to.
Dad rounded the corner from the hallway leading to the kitchen, middle-aged, stocky and well past balding – near-black hair bordering his bald scalp around the sides. Dad stared at me, “James, don’t yell in the house.” It was a common admonishment in our small house. I stepped back from the door as dad entered the foyer and greeted the man at the door. “Hey John! Come in. Thanks for coming all the way out to Puyallup.”
“It’s not too far of a drive from Tacoma,” he responded. As the man stepped over the threshold, his presence seemed to only become larger. I might have been intimidated if it weren’t for his soft smile, reverent manners and radiant voice. When he spoke, the sound rumbled upward from his chest and soared out like a Louisiana summer breeze. Dad ushered him into the living room. They stood beside the blue couches patterned in floral designs, faded by the decade since we built the house. Even though my father still stood several inches taller than me, even he was dwarfed by this man.
“You have experience with Japanese cars?” Dad asked.
“Yes, sir. I can fix them fine,” John responded, nodding.
“I appreciate your willingness come out here outside normal business hours.”
“I go where the work is. It’s really no trouble,” a kind smile spread across John’s face.
“Great, I’ll walk you out to the van.”
Out of curiosity, I followed them. John’s large boots made a heavy clop as he walked down the concrete of the walkway alongside the front of house. Arriving at the driveway, we passed in front of the practically new green Grand Caravan, speckled with gold flecks in the paint. We’d bought it only two summers ago for a family trip down the coast. The tan Mitsubishi van was parked just on the other side of the Caravan. It was a strange contraption; it was quite tall and had no engine-cavity at the front, so the windshield sloped sharply toward to the bumper. The engine was under the driver’s seat and both of the front seats lifted up to access the engine. Dad handed John the keys and in a few seconds, he had opened the van side-door, flipped up the carpet flaps behind the front seats, undone the latches holding them down and tilted the seats forward to reveal the engine.
“Well, you seem to know your way around,” my dad observed, markedly less surprised than I was.
“Lube and tune-up?” John asked, looking up from the engine.
“That’s right. I’ll leave you to it. I’ve got dinner to cook before my wife gets home,” Dad said as he turned and marched back up the driveway toward the house and disappeared around the corner.
I stood and observed quietly as John pulled a toolbox out of his small blue truck parked beside the blooming cherry trees on the street and set to his work in the van. He moved quickly. I was surprised someone could be this skilled at anything. I was good at video games, but I still occasionally crashed my TIE Fighter or screwed up in a game of Double Dragon. This guy moved his hands with a deftness and confidence I had only seen in the movements of my parents on stage – mom conducting her choirs, and dad his bands.
He looked back at me once in awhile, smiling each time. He hummed quietly as he worked. I didn’t recognize the tune.
“Why do you call everyone ‘sir’?” I asked, curious about the way he had addressed my dad earlier.
“Oh, it’s just a sign of respect. Something I picked up in the Army,” the man responded.
“Our neighbor up the street makes my friends – his kids – address him that way. He’s in the Army,” I trailed off, realizing how young I sounded. “Should I call you ‘sir’?”
He laughed into the engine of the van, “No, no, you can call me John.” His grin reached ear-to-ear.
“Where are you from, John?”
“New Orleans,” he responded, his voice muffled. New Orleans is what he said, but what I heard was something like Nuh’ohlins in his light southern accent. “Where’re you from?” he turned my question on me, catching me off guard.
“From here, duh!” I said. His chuckle echoed through the engine of the caravan. “I mean I was born in Tacoma, but we’ve been here since I was four… I’m twelve now. That’s eight years,” I continued. “How long were you in the Army?”
“Oh, long enough.”
“Have you ever been in combat?”
At that, he stopped working, lifted his head and shot me a somber look. His eyes were dark and sad. “I was in the Gulf War a few years back, but that ain’t something you should be worrying about,” he responded.
“I’m old enough.”
“Ain’t nobody old enough.”
Rain hammered the ground as Dad and I stood on the porch, staring up the hill from the bottom of the cul-de-sac. At midnight, the only light in the neighborhood coming from yard lamps, garage lights and the solitary streetlamp up the block emanating a pale tangerine glow over the black pavement. Katie’s Volvo rolled down the hill, and the familiar small blue pickup following close behind. My dad’s shoulders sagged as relief overtook him. From the moment Katie learned to drive the stick-shift, we hardly ever saw her. She was always off with her friend Summer or one of the boyfriends that we never met.
The Volvo pulled into the driveway and parked and the pickup pulled in behind it. Katie stepped out of the Volvo and approached the front door, hugged my father and entered the house. John stepped out of the Mitsubishi and came up the walkway as well.
“Clutch went out on the freeway. We can settle the bill later,” John said. His familiar charcoal jumpsuit was soaked through and stuck to his frame.
“Thanks, John. I can’t thank you enough,” bags sagged under Dad’s eyes.
John nodded, “You should get some sleep, Bill. She’s safe.”
In 1999, it was my turn to add a car to the family fleet. It took almost all the savings I had leftover from my paper route of four years to buy the car. I was turning 16 in less than a month, and I had already completed driver’s ed. Looking through classified ads, I found a white ’89 Ford Taurus at a local dealership. The dealer was asking $1300. John came out and checked the engine, the suspension, the frame – we wanted to make sure the expense of maintaining the car wouldn’t outweigh the low cost up front.
“Doesn’t look like it’s been in any accidents. No damage underneath, and everything seems in good condition. Nothing a tune-up can’t fix,” John had said. “The tires are a bit bald though, you’ll want to replace those.”
I took John’s advice and offered the dealer $1000, since I had to change the tires. The dealer countered with $1100 and he would throw in new tires. I accepted. We met up with John at the house later that week.
“What would win in a race, my Taurus or the Caravan?” I asked as John replaced the fuel filter under the car.
“Well that’s a funny race,” John snickered.
“I bet my Taurus would win. The speedometer goes up to 120.”He slid out from under the car and looked me dead in the eye.
“Don’t you be taking this car 120,” I’d never heard John so serious.
“I won’t! I’m just saying…”
He pulled himself up and dusted himself off and relaxed a bit.
“Well, I bet your Taurus would get out the gate a bit faster, but if it were a long race, the Caravan would win. Lots more power. Now come here, I want to show you the distributor cap.”
John had become something like an uncle to me. At least, I saw him more back then than I saw him more than I saw my actual uncles – one had moved to Nevada several years prior and the other lived in not-too-far-away Federal Way, but has always been emotionally distant. My dad and I were plenty close, but my dad was my dad. There are some things you just can’t talk about because he’s also in charge of you. If you say the wrong thing, you could end up grounded.
My relationship with John fell somewhere between family friend and uncle – at the very least, it was a mentor. I felt like I could tell him anything and he’d encourage me, but keep me grounded. He carried himself with a kind of worldly experience. He had a friendly demeanor, but sometimes you could detect weariness underneath. He never liked to talk about himself much, but he liked to talk about me. He was always interested in what I was learning in school, where our soccer team was in the standings, how I felt about God.
Because my parents were so busy with their music programs, one or both of them would often be at work until late in the evening. John was our only alternative to crippling our family fleet for a day or two. He would come in the evenings to perform our oil changes and often even significant repairs. I often accompanied him to the driveway and he would show me what was wrong and sometimes let me help him fix it. Since he often missed meals at home to repair our cars, we eventually began inviting him inside for dinner after the repairs were finished. We Klouses always prided ourselves on hospitality.
Dad walked down the driveway to my Taurus, “Hey John, why don’t you stay for dinner? We’re going to be eating soon.”
John pushed himself out from under the car, “Oh I don’t know if…”
“I insist. You’re like family. Finish up with the Taurus and come inside.”
“Yes, sir,” he smiled. As we walked up the step to the front door, John added, “You know Bill, earlier today I was helping a woman that came into our shop. She was rude and treated me like a slave. She acted like as a white woman, she stood above me. She called me boy. Then I come out here and you treat me proper. You invite me in for dinner. You’re good people.”
My dad simply smiled and said, “You too John. We like having you around.”
While my parents prepared dinner, John and I sat at the dining room table. I sipped a root beer as he wrote up the receipt for the work.
“Learning in school?” John asked, keeping his eyes on his clipboard.
Looking into my glass, I replied, “Yeah, of course.”
John glanced up at me. “Keeping up on homework?”
“Yeah,” my voice trailed off as my eyes drifted to the windows beside the table.
“Something eating you?” John had set down his clipboard and was looking straight at me now. I slowly shook my head, remaining silent.
“NO,” embarrassed, the word tumbled out with more force than I intended. He smiled.
“What is it?”
I sighed and just spit out, “I just don’t feel like I have any friends at school. Everyone is so mean.”
“You know, sometimes things work out like that. Sometimes you just gotta keep your chin up and keep trucking. If you don’t find some folks at school, you’ll find them after. High school’s just a blip in your life, James.”
I put my root beer down and slumped in my chair. “I know… I just wish I had more people to talk to.”
“Well, you can always talk to me,” John said. As I looked up, our eyes met. I felt as if he was looking right through me. “God has a plan for us all,” he said. “He challenges us all. You just have to rise to that challenge, and you’ll come out stronger.”
I considered this a moment. As always, it sounded like John was speaking from experience. I wondered what could possibly challenge him. He always seemed to have an answer, as if there wasn’t anything on the Earth that he hadn’t lived through. His dark eyes stayed on steady on me.
“You believe that?” I asked.
One afternoon, John’s wife, Mildred, had come to drop off my dad’s keys at work after John had completed the work on Dad’s car. I was sitting in Dad’s office, as he was my band director, and I occasionally enjoyed eating lunch with him.
“I’m looking for Bill Klouse,” Mildred said, glancing around the room.
“I’m Bill,” dad replied, waving her into the office.
Mildred looked confused. She had never met him before, but she looked as though she had mistaken him for someone else.
“Is something wrong?” Dad asked.
“I’m sorry! John led me to believe you were taller.” Slightly embarrassed, she handed him the keys and the receipt for the work. She left quickly.
Dad looked at me and smiled, “How odd…”
A few weeks later, John came out to the house on one of the more regular calls. Upon greeting him at the door, my dad invited him in and then asked John about what Mildred had said. John’s deep laugh filled the foyer, his shoulders heaving with his voice. Dad asked what was so funny.
“I told her you were six foot tall,” John said.
“Why?” Dad inquired, curious.
“Because you have a six foot personality.”
2. John Allen Muhammad
The last time John came to the house was to change the oil on the Caravan. Only a few months had passed since a pair of planes had set the tone of the nation for the coming decade. At 18, I had begun developing my own brand of world-weariness: the world was full of terrorists, Afghanistan was crawling with American troops and President Bush was rattling on about Saddam Hussein. I was terrified Bush was going to activate the draft and take us to war in Iraq. If there’s anything positive that came of that, it’s that only one of those came true.
“James! John’s here,” my mom called out. She knew I would want to help John if I could. Captain Picard shrank to a dot as I shut off my TV and ran out to the front of the house. John was parked beside the cherry trees along the street as always, but he was not alone. Beside him there stood a boy even younger than me. He looked 16 or 17. He wore a similar charcoal jumpsuit to John’s and carried John’s toolbox with such an authority that I assumed he was one of John’s co-workers. I was selling musical instruments part-time – there’s no reason a kid can’t be a mechanic, I thought.
“Hey John,” I greeted him as he approached the Caravan.
He looked at me and responded curtly, “James…”
I was caught unprepared for his response. Trying to recover I asked, “Who’s your friend?”
The boy stared at me coldly, his eyes emanating a deep enmity that I did not understand. It was disconcerting. I tried to seem friendly, but his silent stare put me on edge. I never got an answer.
Something was going on, but I didn’t know what. It had only been a few months since I’d last seen John, but he had changed so much. The warm, friendly demeanor was gone and in its place was a cold and distant one. And who was this boy? I couldn’t help but feel a bit of betrayal seeing him accompany John. He stood beside John as he opened the hood, usurping my place. He handed John tools and got his hands dirty under the hood, while I stood beside the van and my hands remained clean. I stood in silence and watched for a few minutes, then finally returned to the house.
John did not stay for dinner that night.
“I’m taking the car up to Goodyear,” Dad announced as he walked to the front door.
“Why not just call John?” I asked, looking up from my book.
“I tried,” he said, “But no one’s answering the phone. I can’t even reach Mildred – I think she changed her number. I don’t know what happened.
In 2002, I sat near the end of my narrow brick dorm room in Cheney, Washington. The school year had barely begun, but by October the desk was already a mess of papers and soda cans. The only bare spots surrounded my mouse and keyboard. My freshman year roommate, Wayne, and I had been marathoning episodes of Evangelion. The desk began to vibrate, soda cans buzzed together and papers slid across each other. The vibration was soon accompanied by Saria’s Song, a custom ring tone I had programmed into my indestructible Nokia cell phone.
“Pick up the phone, man,” Wayne said, as I searched the desk for my cell.
Finally, I found it, glanced at the Caller ID, then brought it next to my ear. “Dad?”
“James, turn on CNN.”
“Just turn it on.”
After racking my mind a moment for the Spokane channel number for CNN, I changed the channel. Staring back at me was John. There was such malevolence in his eyes that I didn’t immediately recognize him. The look on his face was so foreign to me that he appeared like a completely different person.
“What is this?” I asked, confused. Beneath his picture was a title line: “Beltway Sniper Captured”.
The anchor spoke behind the full-screen image of him: “John Allen Muhammad, one of the two suspects in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks, is a twice-divorced, 41-year-old Gulf War veteran who converted to Islam 17 years ago and earned an expert marksmanship badge in the U.S. Army.”
” Muhammad?” That wasn’t John’s name.
There was a moment of silence on the line, as though my dad was acknowledging my confusion, “They’re saying John was the DC Sniper.”
“You knew that guy?” Wayne asked.
I turned away from the TV and sat on my bed, “I don’t know.”
Dinner was in the oven and the smell of chicken, onions and garlic was wafting through the house. The sun having set over an hour prior, the family room was dark except for the light coming from the television set, which flickered on the walls. Dad and I were seated next to each other – dad on the recliner, me on the futon. On the television was the live feed from CNN leading up to John Williams’ Muhammad’s execution. The unfamiliar name sat below the familiar face. His hair had grown out, he now had a beard. A face that I’d only ever seen smile before that day now stared at me with lifeless eyes. He was arrested seven years ago. He was scheduled to be executed that night, but I can’t help to feel that he died almost a decade ago.
While we were waiting for dinner to finish and the execution to end, dad and I swapped memories of John. After awhile, I moved into my bedroom and typed up a crude recounting of my time with John. I titled it, “Reddit, tonight my friend is being executed in Virginia.” When I had read it and re-read it a few times, I submitted it to Reddit, where it was read by tens of thousands of people. In less than six days, over two thousand comments were made in the thread. Some people wanted to know more about John and were intrigued that I had known a different side of him. Others condemned me for trying to lessen the evil that he had committed. Still others believed I was outright lying about the whole thing – that I had never known him and was just trolling. One messaged me and asked to interview me on his radio show that week.
After responding to the comments for a while, my dad told me to come back to the family room. Mom sat next to me on the futon. The news anchor announced that the execution would begin shortly. We sat in meditative silence.
Malvo, the boy who accompanied John on his horrific shooting spree, was the same young boy I saw that last day I ever saw John. For his role in the shootings, Malvo was given multiple life sentences. He was two years younger than me. They testified that their actions were racially motivated. Malvo said the plan was to kill six white people a day for 30 days. I wonder if John would have killed me. What if I had been that teenager out in front of his school that took a bullet to the abdomen? He couldn’t possibly have hated me the entire time. His warmth was far too genuine. I refuse to believe that John was hiding the “real him” that whole time. These were different people.
I knew him before and after he took Malvo under his wing. Other testimony in the trial stated that John had planned to use a ransom from the government to establish a Utopia for homeless black kids in Canada. He took Malvo along because Malvo was an example of the children John was trying to save. Does that mean he never would have taken me? Not even considered it? I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. I thought John and I were close. No, I didn’t and don’t want to go on a shooting spree but all the same, I felt betrayed when I saw that I had been replaced. I was John’s little buddy one day, and a complete stranger the next.
I wonder if John modeled his hatred on all that my family was. For how small our house was and despite the fact that I bought almost everything I owned after age 12 with money I earned working in paper delivery or instrument sales, our family did have more than most – certainly more than John or Lee had growing up.
I know what it’s like to be two different people inside the same lifetime. I’ve been at least two people myself. I haven’t gone off and shot anyone, but I can say for sure that my methods and outlooks these days are completely different from even five or six years ago. While John sat in prison, making appeal after appeal, I was hitting my own emotional floor. I had dropped out of college, had a conflict of identity, alienated myself from some family and many friends. It wasn’t long after John’s execution that I realized I needed to change my life. I had spent nearly as much time wallowing in self-misery as John had spent on death row.
Now on a different life path, I’m sad that I couldn’t have done something to pull John away from the path that led to those heinous acts. I worry that something about me that I could never change was what drove him to commit those crimes. He couldn’t have been looking at brake calipers with me standing next to him one day and not be thinking what he was when he shot those people. I was everything he wanted to train his scope on. White, male, middle-class, loving family, privileged.
A few minutes later, the anchor announced that John Allen Muhammad had been executed by lethal injection. The country breathed a sigh of relief, Mom said dinner’s ready and Dad turned off the television.