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Sniper diary: Seven days in October

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Editor's Note: Jeffrey Hopper and his wife were heading back to Florida after a visit with family in Pennsylvania. They stopped for dinner at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland. As they walked back to their car, a shot rang out, and Hopper collapsed in the parking lot. It was a Saturday night, Oct. 19, 2002. The Beltway snipers, who had already killed nine people in the previous three weeks in and around Washington, D.C., were moving south into Hanover County, just north of Richmond.

For the next six days, the region trembled — and raced into action. The snipers, who had already wounded a school child in Maryland, left a note in Ashland threatening to harm more children. The drama — and the tragedy — ended on Thursday, Oct. 24, when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested while sleeping in their car at an interstate rest stop in Maryland. Both were convicted of murder. Muhammad has been executed. Malvo is serving a life sentence. They killed 10 people in October 2002. Jeffery Hopper survived the wounds to his torso, after several major surgeries, and has recovered.

Stewart D. Roberson was serving as superintendent of the Hanover County Public Schools at the time of the shooting and was responsible for protecting the county's students while the killers were at large. He kept a diary of those tense days, which he later developed into a leadership training presentation for principals and school superintendents. It has been used in a number of graduate classes, seminars and leadership sessions focusing on the themes of crisis management, community relations and communications.

Roberson retired in July 2011. His observations still capture the drama, fear and courage that marked a supremely difficult October. Today, we publish excerpts from his diary.


6 p.m.: My 11-year-old son and I arrive home from a day spent with friends in Charlottesville, witnessing an incredible upset of the University of South Carolina football team by the University of Virginia.

8 p.m.: The Ashland sniper shooting occurs at the Ponderosa restaurant, in the geographic center of Hanover County and six blocks from (school) district offices.

10 p.m.: My wife wakes me to begin watching CNN.

10:10 p.m.: With all major highways experiencing another of the now-routine law enforcement dragnets of interstate highways, we call the parents of the friends being visited by our 16-year old daughter and arrange for her to spend the night. News reports begin identifying the shooting as "sniper-related."

10:30 p.m.: The dragnet is tying up traffic for tens of thousands of motorists regionally, halting efforts by other parents to pick up their children from a host of seasonal activities.

10:45 p.m. : The Ashland mayor and a member of our Board of Supervisors call me and ask that I help them with comments about what the schools may be able to do.

Midnight: I call (Hanover Schools) Executive Assistant David Slonaker and Executive Director Tony Valentino to arrange a senior staff meeting tomorrow (Sunday) at 1 pm. I ask Tony Valentino to consult with local law enforcement folks before the meeting.

12:30 a.m. : Channel 12 reporter calls; requests that I appear live at 7:30 am to speak to parents about how they may speak to their children about these events.

* * * * *


(The snipers' letter left in Ashland had told police to expect a call at 6a.m. Because of the investigation, the deadline was missed. (Montgomery County, Md.) Police Chief Charles Moose asked the sniper, later in the day, to contact authorities again.)

1: a.m.-6 a.m.: I sleep, though fitfully, between moments of being awake to jot down notes about tomorrow's priorities.

7 a.m.: I leave a message with my school board chairman, John Axselle, letting him know of the TV interview and suggesting that we may experience a flurry of events today. I indicate that he may anticipate hearing from David Slonaker most regularly.

7:30 a.m. -9 a.m.: Appear live on Channel 12 with the memory of the sermon at church last week: "There is evil in this world. There is risk associated with living in this world. We cannot control the unpredictable. We derive strength, comfort and joy from our faith, family, and friends." This is the message I convey in many public remarks to follow. Additionally, I convey how we must tend to the developmental differences in the children we lead as they process terrifying events.

9 a.m.: Called Mark Edwards, superintendent in Henrico County, Deborah Jewell-Sherman, superintendent in Richmond, and Billy Cannaday, superintendent in Chesterfield County, the jurisdictions adjacent to Hanover County. Discussed the anticipated need for metro superintendents to process the events and their implications today. Mark agreed to set up a meeting at 3 p.m. in his office.

10:30 a.m.: Downloaded school lockdown procedures for Northern Virginia and Maryland schools from news services provided by Virginia Department of Education website.

12 p.m.: Channel 12 reporter calls to suggest that it would be valuable for the viewers to obtain any updates of school decision-making.

1 p.m.: Senior staff meeting at School Board office. The executive assistant, assistant superintendents, school safety officer, executive director, and communications specialist gather to discuss the implications of last night's shooting upon our preparations for school tomorrow. We all agree that schools should remain open. We all agree that schools should be under tight, lockdown provisions. Using our own crisis plan, feedback from our sheriff's office, and the examples of lockdown provisions initiated by other school districts in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, we crafted a set of procedures to communicate to school principals and the community.

3 p.m.: Regional superintendents' meeting in Henrico County office. Each superintendent, along with an officer who joined us from the Henrico police department, agreed to a general set of lockdown provisions, which would be evident in each school serving the metro Richmond area. Because of the dramatic and unprecedented changes anticipated in the school conditions, we arranged for a brief press conference to announce the changes that afternoon.

4 p.m.: Press conference involving regional superintendents, and Henrico County police officer. As a means of offering comfort to the community, we acknowledge that "schools are the safest places children can be," and that our lockdown provisions scheduled for tomorrow are designed to underscore our commitment to that belief. The press conference is broadcast live by national network affiliates.

6 p.m.: Regional superintendents man a bank of phones during a live call-in segment at Channel 12 TV. Parents and community members seek an understanding of the lockdown plan, creating new issues and anxieties to consider as we go forward.

7 p.m.: While conducting our phone duty, a note is passed to the superintendents that we are needed at a meeting of the regional sniper task force at 7:30 p.m. at the Henrico County police department. Police officers had been sent to our homes to provide transportation, if needed.

7:30 p.m.: Meeting with police chiefs, sheriffs, superintendents, city/county managers, state superintendent of public safety, FBI officials, other special agents. As the investigation had evolved through the day, our law enforcement partners had remained committed to providing the latest information which may help guide school systems' planning. Though law enforcement folks had signaled their support of our plan to open schools for tomorrow, new information had come to light about how the snipers may be responding to televised comments by public officials (the shooting in Ashland on a Saturday night was believed to be a direct response by the snipers to official comments earlier, "We don't believe the snipers strike on the weekend or as far south as, say, Ashland.") Given how we had earlier in the day claimed that schools are the safest places children can be, coupled with the task force's receipt around 4:30 pm today of the sniper's Ashland note, ("P.S. your children are not safe anywhere at any time"), a note which would chill the nation with its release two days later, our law enforcement partners knew that we would want to know what they had just discovered through their investigation and intelligence sources. (Gov. Mark Warner) communicated with those in our meeting via telephone.

8:15 p.m.: Metro Richmond superintendents announce school closings for Monday. Having been asked to not share with anyone, including our senior staffs and school boards, the investigation evidence provided us at 7:30 pm, we announced that increasing community concern and anxiety had prompted us to reconsider our decision earlier in the day.

9 p.m.: I arrive at home, witnessing my wife managing the anxieties of our two school-age children who clearly couldn't imagine the reasons for the reversal of our decision. Our daughter wondered aloud, "Dad, the sniper has struck in three places we have lived; do you think he knows where we live?" Our son, a very inquisitive sort, couldn't reason his way through this; an uncharacteristic period of frightened sobbing was his response.

9:15 p.m.-1 a.m.: Nonstop media inquiries from TV channels 6, 8, and 12; Radio stations WRVA, 98.1, 94.5; Richmond Times-Dispatch, the two (Hanover) newspapers; CBS/NBC/ABC/CNN/Fox TV and radio affiliates; WMAL; CBS Boston; Newsweek; USA Today; Washington Post, Education Week; Time; US News and World Report; Greta Van Susteren (Fox); Aaron Brown (CNN); Today Show and others became a regular part of our day-to-day diet of activities this evening and beyond.

Midnight-12:30 a.m : Received calls from superintendents in outlying areas and two local college presidents seeking advice on their decision-making.

* * * * *


(Sniper suspects try to call again from a pay phone in Henrico County)

6-8 a.m.: Media inquiries/interviews.

10:15 am: Met with the 120+ leadership team to discuss the events since Saturday evening. Shared the lockdown provisions recommended by the senior staff. Engaged in dialogue about how the provisions can offer the highest level of security/signal the highest level of public confidence attainable. A challenging meeting for me, I explained the need for us to also recognize the developmental needs of children if discussing these conditions as part of the school day. I directed that calls should go out today to parents and volunteers in implementing the lockdown provisions. To underscore the level of planning and support needed, I urged principals to examine all possible angles from which a sniper at the treeline might place the movement of children in his crosshairs. I asked that that angle be obstructed where possible.

1:30 p.m.: Meeting with U.S. Sen. John W. Warner. This was the only pre-scheduled appointment I maintained this week. Along with other education leaders in Virginia, I met the senator in Ashland to present him a resolution of appreciation for his strong support of full IDEA funding.

2:30 pm: I meet with the senior staff and develop a response to the many emails and phone calls of concern logged since last evening. We also established that my "media time" would be committed exclusively to the Richmond media market and education outlets.

3 p.m.: Conference call with Hanover County Sheriff Stuart Cook. He signaled his support for any decision we may make about school opening on Tuesday. He did indicate that if we closed, the "freed-up" school resource officers would be valuable to the regional investigation, which was apparently developing to a crescendo.

3:30 p.m.: Conference call with metro Richmond superintendents. We all agreed to remain closed on Tuesday, publicly citing the need to support the regional law enforcement strategy.

7 pm: Press release sent to all media outlets, closing schools for a second day, and citing the need to support our law enforcement partners.

7:30-10:30 p.m.: More media interviews.

  • Selected email correspondence received today:

11:25 p.m.: "I don't know who you are talking to, because most people I know are dismayed and embarrassed by the closing of local schools. Schools are probably the BEST place our children could be at this time. And when they get back, please talk to them forthrightly about what is going on, rather than like after 9/11 when elementary teachers refused to answer children's earnest questions. I have three children in your care — even they are saying the closing of the schools is exacerbating a bad situation. Please get them back into school and offer them a lesson in persevering in adverse times."

* * * * *


(6 a.m. — Conrad Johnson is killed in Silver Spring, Md.; another note is left by the sniper.)

6-8:30 a.m.: More media interviews.

8:30-10:30 a.m.: Receive calls from 10 superintendents along the I-95 corridor, inquiring as to why we have closed; the pressure from their own constituents is building for them to do the same.

10:30 a.m.: Conference call with metro Richmond superintendents. We discuss the need to allay our own constituents' concerns about getting life "back to normal." We acknowledge how our law enforcement partners are feeling similar anxiety.

11:30 a.m.: Each superintendent talks with his/her law enforcement partner about the increasing public anxiety.

1 p.m.: Conference call with metro Richmond superintendents; we agree that it is time to reopen, citing the law enforcement and staff readiness, the volunteer support, and the community preparation.

3:30 pm: A press release is sent to all media contacts reopening schools on Wednesday under extraordinary lockdown provisions.

4:15-7 p.m.: More media interviews. I receive calls, too, from the Greta van Susteren (Fox) and Aaron Brown (CNN) shows, asking for live interviews this evening. I indicate that I don't believe that our school community would derive a benefit from my acceptance of their invitation.

4:30 p.m.: Chief Moose publicly reveals the sniper's note contents; the nation is chilled by its threat to children, its demand for $10 million, and the connection between recent shootings and an absence of negotiations. While I had begun my interview by two TV reporters in my office at 4:15 pm for the purpose of describing the lockdown provisions, their pagers alerted them to Chief Moose's press conference revelation. Their questioning of me then turned to, "Did you know about this note?" I acknowledged that I did and that to have shared it publicly would have been unnecessarily alarming and detrimental to the investigation to date; that I was confident that the two days since Sunday had enabled all of us in the community to focus our energies on a successful beginning tomorrow.

  • Selected email correspondence received today:

1:29 pm: "I wouldn't worry too much about the debate over the issue of whether or not to close schools. It's easy for those with no responsibility for the safety of children to second-guess any decision. I have been thinking a lot about your circumstances since the weekend, and the decision makes a lot of sense. There is no way to guarantee the safety of children under the circumstances; it's not just a matter of protecting children at school, as every child waiting for a bus becomes a target."

* * * * *


6-7 a.m.: More media interviews.

7:15-7:30 a.m.: At son's bus stop; the neighborhood children appeared just fine; the parents were visibly nervous to the other adults.

88:30 a.m.: All schools reopen for students and teachers. In Hanover, I observed images during six school visits which will be burned in my memory forever: over 1,000 volunteers in our schools; mothers and fathers walking the tree lines of the school yards; school staff, law enforcement partners, business and government leaders forming "human corridors" through which children entered the schoolhouses safely; large vehicles obstructing the view one may have of the children as they exited buses and cars to walk inside the schoolhouse.

9:30–10:30 a.m: More media interviews.

11:30 a.m.: I sent an email to all school employees, citing my deepest appreciation for their commitment to the children we serve and for their understanding of the extraordinary circumstances to which we had all been asked to respond.

2:30–4 p.m.: Visited four additional schools.

4_–5 p.m.: Another media interview; the central focus was upon the 90% attendance rate of our students today. I attributed that to the community's readiness to move on and the community's confidence in the school/law enforcement partnership.

* * * * *


3:30 a.m.: Sniper suspects arrested while sleeping in their vehicle at an interstate rest stop in Frederick County, Md. — not public knowledge until later.

7:15–7:30 a.m.: At son's bus stop.

7:30–8:45 a.m.: Visit five additional schools — 96 percent attendance today.

8:45 a.m.: Phone conversation with sheriff to discuss timeframe for lifting lockdown provisions in the aftermath of the early morning arrests.

11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.: Metro Richmond superintendents review discussions with law enforcement partners regarding lifting lockdown provisions. We agree that not until we learn that there is a ballistics match to the evidence taken from the suspects' vehicle will we announce the lifting of the lockdown.

3:30–5:30 p.m.: Spoke with each School Board member personally, by phone.

8 p.m.: Final sniper task force press conference/ballistics match is confirmed.

9 p.m.: Metro Richmond superintendents issue a press release, lifting all lockdown provisions.

9:15 p.m.: Sheriff Cook and I talk by phone; we commit to a round of golf soon.

  • Selected email received today:

8:47 a.m.: "I just wanted to say THANK YOU to everyone (and there were so many people) who were/are involved in the security at the Hanover schools this week. I was overwhelmed when my son told me yesterday evening of all the precautions and security measures that were in place yesterday. I think Hanover has done an excellent job and you all are to be commended for putting your lives on the line for our children.

* * * * *


6:45 a.m.: More media interviews.

8 a.m.: I learn that the suspects had been in our community for five days, frequenting the YMCA, staying at a local hotel, contacting a local priest, and even contacting our school attendance officials about enrollment procedures.

8:45 a.m.–12:30 p.m.: Write thank-you notes/letters/listen to news reports of investigation. Interestingly, the week's reports about how it was unsafe for children to travel to school were replaced by the usual drivel about how schools in America are "rotten." In a perverse way, I realized that life was getting back to normal.

12:30–1 p.m.: Lunch.

1–2:30 p.m.: Write thank-you notes.

2:30–4 p.m.: School visits.

4-6 p.m.: Nap.

7 p.m.: Take family to dinner.


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