The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Son shares memories of 2002 sniper shooting
RELATED: Sniper survivor doesn’t dwell on shooting
WHERE WERE YOU? Share your memories of the sniper shootings on our facebook page.
By PAMELA GOULD
“I was at home when we got the news.
I hadn’t been home from school long.
I’d gotten off the bus, planned on doing normal activities.
My dad was there, too, that Friday afternoon. That wasn’t unusual since as a commercial pilot he’d be gone for a few days and then at home for a few days.
My little brother, Ryan, was still at preschool.
I answered the door and a deputy was there.
It was kind of weird.
Almost simultaneously, a doctor called.
I said, ‘Hey Dad, there’s a deputy at the door and a doctor on the phone.’
I had no idea what was going on.
From then, it was kind of a blur.”
Sean Seawell was a senior at Spotsylvania High School when his mother became victim No. 7 in a string of shootings that stretched from Montgomery County, Md., to Hanover County over a three-week span in October 2002.Caroline Seawell was also the first survivor.
Sean, then 17, had arrived at the family’s home near Chancellorsville Battlefield shortly after 2:30 that Friday afternoon.
It looked to be a typical Friday until the Spotsylvania County sheriff’s deputy spoke.
“I do distinctly remember the deputy saying: Mr. Seawell, I am Deputy so-and-so from the Sheriff’s Department coming to tell you your wife has been shot.
“At the time, we were just dumbfounded,” Sean said.
“I didn’t think about the other sniper shootings. We didn’t make the connection.”
His father left for the hospital and Sean went to pick up Ryan from preschool.
Sean, now 27, said the reality of what happened didn’t sink in until the next day, when he traveled to Inova Fairfax Hospital to see his mother.
“I didn’t know what to expect going up to the hospital—if she was still going to be my same mom,” he said.
Then he stepped into her room.
“When I saw her is when I really realized what could have happened.
“I could have lost her.”
A STRONG MAN’S TEARS
Seeing his mother in the hospital left the most indelible impression of the entire sniper shooting ordeal on Sean Seawell.
But the second-most vivid memory from a decade ago was seeing his father cry.
It happened when they were at home and his father listened to a message on the answering machine from one of their relatives.
“That made a distinct impact on me, on how different a situation it was,” he said.
“He was my hero. He was a strong male role model I had never seen any weakness from. It definitely drove home how serious the situation actually was.”
NOT LIVING IN TERROR
Sean Seawell was aware of the news buzzing all around him in October 2002—of people afraid to pump gas into their cars, of restricted activities at schools, of a suspicious white box truck seen near some of the shootings, and of a region living in fear of doing everyday activities like mowing grass and shopping.
His mother had just loaded a scarecrow into the back of the family’s minivan in the parking lot of Michaels crafts store near Spotsylvania Mall when she was hit by a sniper’s bullet around the time school let out on Oct. 4, 2002.
When Sean returned to school days later, he was met with a reminder.
“The next day in school, I remember seeing a white box truck being pulled over in front of Spotsylvania High School,” he said. “Obviously, there was that level of suspicion.”
But he said he and his family weren’t consumed by the paranoia that gripped people from the Washington suburbs to Richmond.
Their attention was elsewhere.
“We were focused on her,” Sean said.
They were encouraged when Caroline Seawell, then 43, came home after just four days in the hospital.
But they knew of the dangers.
Deputies had been posted outside their home.
A guard had stood watch over his mother’s hospital room.
And she had been registered under an alias while there, unimaginatively as “Jane Doe.”
“I really wasn’t too worried about it,” Sean said of the snipers’ reign of terror.
His parents had told him to get on with his daily life.
“Maybe it was them trying to protect me,” he says now.
‘SHE’S PRETTY TOUGH’
Three years later, the Seawells moved to South Carolina, back to Caroline’s hometown of Columbia. She needed to be there to care for her mother, who had cancer.
By then, Caroline Seawell had helped convict John Allen Muhammad and his teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.
Sean Seawell wasn’t bothered that his mother was asked to testify at the trials, but he knew it might be an anxiety-laden experience for her. Instead, he saw her remain composed throughout those days.
“I was impressed,” he said. “You never really know how people are going to react.”
He didn’t realize until last week that his mother had been questioned by Muhammad when the killer served as his own attorney during a murder trial in Montgomery County, Md.
“That takes some guts on [Muhammad’s] part—probably even more on my Mom’s part,” Sean said. “She’s pretty tough.”
Both Sean and Caroline Seawell said justice was served in the trials in Virginia and Maryland for both killers.
Malvo received multiple life sentences related to the 10 murders and three attempted murders of that 21-day shooting spree, which included the killing of Philadelphia businessman Kenneth Bridges at a Spotsylvania Exxon. Malvo is expected to spend the rest of his life in a Virginia prison.
Muhammad was executed by lethal injection in Virginia in November 2009 for his role.
Neither Sean Seawell nor his mother took any joy in Muhammad’s execution.
But as the day approached, Sean said he saw it as a means of relief from seven years of hearing about the shootings.
As resilient as he and his family were, “eventually, it beats you down,” he said.
SAME AGE, DIFFERENT LIVES
Sean Seawell and Lee Boyd Malvo are the same age.
It’s a point Caroline Seawell didn’t miss when the snipers were caught on Oct. 24, 2002.
It boggled her mind.
“I couldn’t imagine a child being that evil by that age,” she said last week.
In October 2002, Sean Seawell was traveling up and down Interstate 95 to baseball practices in the Manassas area as part of a showcase team, getting looked at by college and pro scouts.
At the same time, Lee Malvo was traveling that highway and others scouting out targets—human targets—with the only father figure he’d ever known for an extended time.
By all accounts, it was Muhammad who turned Malvo into a killer, systematically desensitizing him to the point where he would kill on command for no reason.
Sean Seawell finds it impossible to grasp how Malvo could have allowed himself to fall so completely under Muhammad’s control.
“I can’t imagine allowing myself to succumb to that,” Sean said. “I think I was brought up to know how to make the decisions.”
Sean had finished a year of college by the time his family moved from Spotsylvania in 2005.
But South Carolina never felt like home and he soon returned to Virginia on his own and became a volunteer firefighter in the county where he grew up.
Today, he’s a sergeant with Stafford County Fire and Rescue, inspired to pursue public service by his father, who had been a police officer and served in the Air National Guard before his career as a commercial pilot.
Sean Seawell is also married and has a 15-month-old son.
His goals are simple staples of the American dream.
“I want to raise a family,” he said. “I’m very happy in my marriage. We are loving being parents. We plan to expand our family in time.”
Seven hours away, another 27-year-old sits in a maximum security prison stripped of such options. His life’s course has been set, a consequence of his deadly deeds.
Malvo’s life will be lived out under lock and key as a result of the devastation he wreaked on families across Maryland, D.C., Virginia and beyond.
The contrast between the two lives could not be more extreme.
“It’s amazing.” Sean said, “how a good father figure, a good mother and how you’re brought up can have a significant impact.”
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972