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Panic at the Exxon: Retired officer recounts the day a call from the snipers shut down Broad Street

Posted at 6:00 PM, Oct 21, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- On the morning of October 21, 2002, 48 hours after a man was shot outside the Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland, the multi-agency task force investigating a series of sniper shootings received a call from one of the gunmen.

It came from a pay phone in metro Richmond.

Former Henrico assistant police chief Jim Fitzgerald was driving to work that morning when he heard something over the scanner.

“Communications came on and said that there was a possible sighting of the suspects at Parham and Broad,” said Fitzgerald, who arrived at the intersection moments later. “I looked over to my left and I noticed there's a white van sitting beside the telephone.”

At the time, it was believed that the sniper could be driving a white van or box truck, based on witness reports.

“I called it in, then I pulled the call up on my computer in the car, and I could see that return number was a 301 area code, which I knew was in Maryland, obviously,” said Fitzgerald. “And I was able to go down, make a U-turn, and come up on a parking lot adjacent to that service station where I could clearly see the van, and then that's when the command post called me for an update.”

A SWAT team had gathered nearby, and moments later, the FBI told Fitzgerald to send them in.

The officers moved quickly, and two men were taken into custody. The pay phone itself would be uprooted and flown to Washington. For the first time, there was hope that the shooting spree had come to an end.

But 10 hours later, we learned that the men arrested were not the snipers, just two undocumented workers in the wrong place at the wrong time.

RELATED: Though the Ponderosa Steakhouse is gone, Ashland residents recall terror of sniper shooting

At a news conference, a Henrico police spokesman announced that the men had been turned over to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service and that no local charges had been filed.

While either John Allen Muhammad or Lee Boyd Malvo did make the call to the task force, they were gone by the time police arrived on the scene. Despite this, they were probably still very close by.

“Immediately across the street was a Citgo station. It also had drive-up phones,” said Fitzgerald. “As it turned out, after the fact, with the actual number, they actually called from the Citgo station, not from the Exxon station.”

“And that led to speculation that Malvo and Muhammad were standing there watching the whole thing.”

A brazen game of cat and mouse, especially considering that intersection was less than a half mile from Henrico police headquarters.

In the two decades that have passed since the sniper attacks, several new revelations have come to light, including a close call involving another Henrico officer and the shooters. Just one day before the pay phone call, a patrolman spotted a suspicious-looking blue Chevy Caprice traveling down Broad Street, just a few blocks from the Exxon.

“He just had that instinct that, you know, something with this car,” said Fitzgerald. “But again, we were looking for a white van, so we're not looking for a blue car. And the officer most likely probably would have continued to follow, but he was diverted to an alarm, a school alarm.”

“Weeks afterward, people start talking about ‘I saw that car, I did this and that.’ And so what we know today, 20 years later, we didn't know at the time. What we know now was that, yes, we had A Henrico officer right behind the car.”

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