26. Bushmaster

October 7, 2002

Benjamin Tasker Middle School — Bowie, Maryland

A woman stopped her car across the street from the middle school, and dropped off her thirteen-year-old nephew. The boy had been suspended from riding the school bus for a week, for eating candy, so he needed the ride. It was 8:09am, and class was about to start.

The boy set down his book bag for a moment on the sidewalk, looking up to wave to his aunt as she started to drive away — suddenly, a gunshot rang out. There was a scream, and he fell to the pavement.

The boy’s aunt was terrified and confused, the gunshot seeming to have come from nowhere. But she remained focused. She slammed on her brakes, put the car in reverse, went back and picked up her injured nephew, and then raced him to the hospital while calling 9-1-1.

* * *

The boy was badly injured, but he would survive. Many others that fall of 2002 were not so lucky — the attack on Benjamin Tasker Middle School was the ninth in a series of seemingly random ambush attacks, scattered across the capitol region, a murder spree that the press attributed to an unidentified “Beltway Sniper.” Whoever it was, they had the entire country’s attention, and the police desperate for clues.

The forensics team found a single shell-casing, 75 yards down the street from the middle school. Alongside the brass cylinder, they found a tarot card, face down. On the back of the card, the sniper had written “For you Mr. police” and “Do not release to the press.”

The officer flipped the card over; it was the “Death” card, and above the grim reaper, the shooter had written “Call me God.”

Later that day, “god” gave his demands: ten million dollars, and a message that was read on live television that afternoon: “Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time.” Until the sniper got what they wanted, they were going to keep shooting.

From wound ballistics, authorities already knew that the shooter always used a .223 rifle (a fact confirmed by the recovered shell casing), but the investigators could not identify the exact weapon, since no one had yet seen just where, exactly, the shots came from. Often, a person shot by the sniper was surrounded by witnesses, but still, there was no suspect, and no description. The bullets just seemed to come from thin air.

The FBI ran with a theory that the shooter was firing from within a vehicle, and sent out a press release urging the public to be on the lookout for a white van, or white box truck, as some witnesses reported seeing near several of the attacks. In the same notice, the police warned against believing any of the rumors that they might have identified the murder weapon, with the Chief of Police stressing, “We have to keep in mind that weapons are interchangeable, as are vehicles. Please don’t narrow your focus to just one weapon.”

* * *

The break in the case finally came when the white truck was ruled out, and the shooter’s vehicle was instead identified as a dark blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, with New Jersey plates. The same car had been seen at a red light near Benjamin Tasker Middle School, shortly before the “Death card” was dropped.

It wasn’t long after the bulletin went out that a trucker driving through Maryland spotted the blue car at a rest area, and called 9-1-1. Within minutes, police had the vehicle surrounded, and were arresting the two men sleeping inside. They were a team; a getaway driver that doubled as a spotter, and the gunman. The “Beltway Sniper’s” reign of terror was over.

As the officers carted the sniper team off to jail, investigators searched the Caprice, and discovered that the upholstery and cushioning of the car’s backseat had been cut away, to accommodate a sniping position that fired through a small hole drilled through the trunk. Opening that trunk, they found the murder weapon, ready for the next stealth attack: a Bushmaster XM15-E2S. In news reports, the gun was often referred to by its broader category in the firearms lexicon: an AR-15.

The shooters were identified, and suddenly, the question of just how they got possession of the rifle loomed much more ominously; the older shooter had a domestic violence conviction, and the younger shooter wasn’t eighteen. So there was no way they could have bought the Bushmaster legally.

The gun in the trunk had its serial number, L284320, stamped on its barrel, so the ATF ran a check for its purchaser — but to their surprise, they found that there was no corresponding “Federal Firearms License” (FFL) transfer on file. The rifle in question had gone missing, having vanished sometime after it left the factory.

Bushmaster Headquarters — Windham, Maine

“The sad thing is the shooter, who sounds like a pretty deranged individual, got a hold of our rifle,” said an executive from Bushmaster to the Washington Post. As ATF agents were presenting search warrants for his company’s records, the rep added that the same model of rifle that the D.C. snipers wielded “is also used by tens of thousands of people and law enforcement agencies. We’re just as upset as everyone else that this crazy man got a hold of it.”

Bushmaster located the serial number in their files, and said they had sold the gun to a distributor in Washington State, who then sold it to a gun store in Tacoma. The ATF sent a query to Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply for the name of the person to whom they had sold the AR-15, and then, they found the problem: Bull’s Eye had no record that the gun was ever sold, and could not explain how it had vanished from their shelves.

* * *

The lobbyists and legal organizations in favor of gun control were still bruised from the collapse of the Boston Agreement, and the stifling of their municipal lawsuits. Now they saw an opportunity for justice; the boy who was injured outside of the middle school, along with several other survivors and families of the DC Sniper’s victims, might have had grounds for a liability case, somewhere along the murder weapon’s failed chain of custody. “Bushmaster deliberately continued to utilize Bull’s Eye as a Bushmaster gun dealer and supplied it with as many guns as Bull’s Eye wanted,” their court filing would read, “despite years of audits by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showing that Bull’s Eye had dozens of missing guns.”

As the D.C. Sniper lawsuit proceeded, from Newtown, the NSSF were watching very closely; they had been planning their legal endgame for years, and were almost ready to make their move.