As Virginia prepares to execute John Allen Muhammad on Tuesday, authorities are unable to answer perhaps the most basic question about the killings: How many people did he and Malvo shoot and kill?
The killing spree in the Washington area in October 2002 is well documented. Beginning on Oct. 2, Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot 13 people at random with a high-powered rifle, firing from the trunk of a modified, beat-up Chevy Caprice. Ten were killed before authorities finally tracked down the pair at a Maryland rest stop.
But the sniper shootings started before Muhammad and Malvo reached the Beltway, with a number of victims killed or wounded as
the duo drove across the country.
Investigators have clearly linked them to some of these prelude shootings, though they have never stood trial for them. Others fall
into a gray area -- police have suspicions, perhaps, but no proof.
The question became even murkier in 2006, when Malvo reportedly confessed to four additional shootings, including two killings,
that had not been linked to him. If Malvo's reported confessions are accepted as true, it would mean he and Muhammad are responsible for 27 shootings resulting in 17 deaths in 10 states (Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, Washington, Georgia, Texas, California, Florida, Arizona and Louisiana) plus the District of Columbia.
But Malvo would only talk to police in jurisdictions that promised not to prosecute him, a deal some agencies weren't willing to make.
The FBI, part of the sniper task force that helped eventually catch Muhammad and Malvo, declined to comment on how many people
the snipers shot and killed, except to say the question is "complicated.''
"To further complicate it, the statements of Muhammad and Malvo need to be relied on as to who performed any given shooting.
Needless to say, their statements cannot be vetted for each and every event,'' FBI spokesman Richard Wolf said in an e-mail.
State and local authorities, including Fairfax County Police, Montgomery County Police, the Montgomery County State's Attorney
and Maryland Office of the Attorney General all referred the question to other agencies.
The prosecutor who put Muhammad on death row, Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, said it may be impossible to know how many people were killed.
"I don't know that you can trust anything Malvo says,'' Ebert said, referring to Malvo's reported confessions. Malvo's statements
have not always been consistent -- he at first took responsibility for pulling the trigger on all the shootings, but later testified that Muhammad, more often than not, was the shooter.
"There may well be more we don't know about, but who knows?'' Ebert said.
Carmeta Albarus Lindo, a social worker who testified on Malvo's behalf at his first trial and has maintained a relationship with
him, said it's up to Malvo's attorneys to decide whether he will provide statements to police without promises of immunity.
Malvo's attorney on the Maryland cases, William Brennan, said he can't comment because Malvo could still theoretically face
prosecution in other states.