The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper

  • Carmeta Albarus and Jonathan Mack
  • Columbia University Press
  • 288 pp.
  • November 26, 2012

Jamaican-born social worker’s fascinating account of Lee Malvo, a victim of abuse, seeks to tell a cautionary tale of how a bright young boy became a killer.

Reviewed by Ronald Schouten, M.D., J.D.

One year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax mailings, with our nerves still raw and collective suspicions verging on paranoia, a new terror struck the Washington, D.C. area.   On October 2, 2002, a sniper began a series of attacks on unsuspecting ordinary citizens as they went about the mundane activities of life: going to the mall, buying gasoline, stopping at the grocery store. By October 24, 2002, when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested as they slept at a highway rest stop, ten people had been slain and three critically injured.

Muhammad, the mastermind of the sniper attacks, was a disgruntled, charismatic Army veteran who supported himself in part through credit card and document fraud and reportedly professed admiration for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks.  Executed in November 2009 for his role in one of the shootings, while other charges were still pending, he appears to have been motivated by a desire for revenge against a society that had deprived him of custody of his children and offended him in myriad other ways.  Regardless of Muhammad’s motivation, his professed goal was to terrorize the population and extort a $10 million payment in return for stopping the attacks.  Debate continues to this day as to whether the attacks represented spree killings, pure criminal extortion, or the work of psychopaths.

Joining Muhammad in this spree of murder, mayhem, and terror was 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo. The boy, who had been emotionally abused by his mother and abandoned by his father, met Muhammad in Jamaica.  Malvo found a surrogate father in Muhammad.  The older man found in Malvo a disciple who he would indoctrinate with radical ideology and hatred for society, and enlist in his deadly plans to extort money, ostensibly for the higher cause of setting up a colony in which to raise Black children free from the evils of White society.

Ten years after the D.C. sniper attacks, Carmeta Albertus, with a contribution from Jonathan Mack, has written The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper, a fascinating account of the life of Malvo that seeks to tell a cautionary tale of how a bright young boy becomes a killer.

Ms. Albertus, a Jamaican-born social worker, served as a mitigation specialist for Malvo’s defense team.  Her work  had two purposes: (1) erode Malvo’s devotion to Muhammad so that Malvo would participate in his own defense, and (2) find mitigating evidence that could explain Malvo’s acts, lessen his apparent blame, and get him a lighter sentence.  It is hard to know what role her efforts played, but one year before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional for crimes committed as a juvenile, Malvo was sentenced to 6 consecutive life sentences rather than death.  Dr. Mack is a forensic psychologist who had no involvement with the defense but reviewed the trial materials and interviewed Malvo in order to discuss forensic mental health aspects in a closing chapter.

Ms. Albertus spent hours with Malvo and interviewed many who taught and cared for him in his native Jamaica.  Her training and skill as a clinician are obvious. She describes his tortured relationship with his mother, his abandonment by his father, and the ensuing trials and tribulations of his young life, suggesting that these set the stage for Muhammad to pose as a caring adult and manipulate Malvo to his own purposes. Ms. Albertus’ theory is that Malvo suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder, a condition in which a child with a severely dysfunctional attachment to primary caregivers, or none at all, is rendered susceptible to latching on with blind devotion to the next available adult, regardless of his or her suitability for the role.

Ms. Albertus’ affection and compassion for Malvo are also obvious, and the reader should not anticipate an objective clinical analysis or even a work of investigative journalism. Her main thesis is that Malvo was a victim: of his mother’s abuse, his father’s abandonment, of all the other adults who failed to rescue him, and of circumstances.  There is no fault in this, and she does make a convincing argument.  Readers should keep in mind that Ms. Albertus’ role was that of an inherently partisan mitigation specialist; she was not an independent researcher or expert witness who we would expect to consider a broad range of diagnoses and explanations, some far more damning than what are offered here. The possibility that Malvo bears responsibility for his own behavior is given little consideration, although Dr. Mack makes the case for an insanity defense, based upon various psychiatric diagnoses he assigns to him.

The book leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable.  Were these acts of terrorism, extortion, psychopathy, or something else? If abuse and neglect can set the stage for murderous behavior, how is it that Lee Malvo, of all the abused and neglected children in the world, is the one who ended up stalking and destroying the lives of so many victims and their families?  The author suggests that Malvo is genuinely remorseful now that he is free of Muhammad’s influence.  But might his expressions of remorse instead be examples of his attachment disorder, or perhaps evidence of conning and manipulations?  Intriguing questions, left to the reader to ponder.

Malvo’s story is intriguing and important for anyone who seeks to understand the roots of violence, and while the writing and editing of this book are uneven, it is worth reading.  Ms. Albertus and Dr. Mack tell a cautionary tale of how a promising young boy, abused and neglected, falls under the influence of an evil mastermind who manipulates him into joining his campaign of  violence, extortion, and retribution, with claims of some higher purpose.  While Albertus and Mack may not succeed in convincing every reader of Malvo’s essential innocence, their explanations give us one example of how those who have lost a place in society, and the world at large, can attach themselves to what they see as a higher cause and commit terrible acts of violence.

Ronald Schouten is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist.  He is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Director of  the Law & Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, and co-author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (Hazelden 2012)


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