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D.C. SNIPER | 20 YEARS LATER

Opinion: 20 years ago, D.C. sniper case touched Ashland

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The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland was the scene of one of shootings in the D.C. sniper case in 2002. The restaurant has since closed.

The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland was the scene of one of the D.C. sniper case shootings in 2002. Ashland police Officer Tim Meacham was the first to arrive at the restaurant, which has since closed, after 911 calls.

By THE TIMES-DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD

The site of the former Ponderosa Steakhouse on England Street in Ashland doesn’t suggest its past role in an international media story.

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But 20 years ago Wednesday, it became one piece in the complex puzzle of the D.C. sniper case. Over three weeks, 10 would be killed and three injured in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Tarps went up at gas stations to shield customers. There were dragnets for white box trucks and false alarms. Countless events were canceled.

Eventually, John Allen Muhammad, then 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, would be arrested following a far-reaching manhunt. Their blue Chevrolet Caprice had been modified so Malvo could secretly shoot from the trunk.

Jeffrey Hopper, 37, was the 12th person shot in the rampage. He and his wife were driving back to Florida after visiting with family in Pennsylvania. They had stopped at the Ponderosa off Interstate 95 for dinner.

It was a Saturday night.

Oct. 19, 2002.

A shot rang out in the parking lot at 7:59.

Hopper collapsed.

He had been hit in the abdomen.

Eventually, a note was found tacked to a tree behind the restaurant. The document mentioned William V. Sullivan Jr., then a pastor at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Ashland, who told authorities he had received a bizarre phone call the day before. The caller had mentioned a shooting earlier in Alabama.

Investigators used that information, along with the note and other forensic evidence, to establish a crucial link to Muhammad and Malvo, who may have been in Ashland for as many as five days.

Muhammad was executed. Malvo is serving a life sentence at Red Onion State Prison.

Hopper survived and has recovered.

The Ponderosa has since closed.

But the memories remain of the region’s role in solving a case that terrorized the nation two decades ago.

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