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How desperate teen Lee Boyd Malvo was transformed into a sniper

Lee Boyd Malvo enters a courtroom in Spotsylvania, Va., on Oct. 26, 2004.

MIKE MORONES/Associated Press

Some may be born killers. Lee Boyd Malvo was made.

The teenage junior partner in the deadly sniper pair who terrorized Washington for 23 days a decade ago this month – methodically, randomly, viciously killing 10 ordinary strangers – had been transformed from a lost child into an obedient, disciplined, cold-blooded murderer by ex-soldier John Allen Muhammad.

Mr. Malvo exists in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison, facing the certainty he will remain in prison, without any chance of parole, for life. Mr. Muhammad was executed in 2009.

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"It was a cult, a cult of two," says Carmeta Albarus, the forensic social worker who worked with Mr. Malvo for years and who has just published a book chronicling his descent into darkness.

Mr. Malvo now describes himself as a "monster." In a recent Washington Post interview marking the grim 10th anniversary of the killings, he says: "I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people's lives. I did someone else's bidding just because they said so … There is no rhyme or reason or sense."

The shootings terrorized the U.S. capital in 2002. Now a more complete, perhaps even more chilling, portrait of the killer as an abandoned child desperate for a father emerges from The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo, written by Ms. Albarus. The book makes no effort to exculpate the Jamaican-born Mr. Malvo but traces his life in detail. She first met him four months after the two snipers were captured, sleeping in a nondescript Chevrolet with gun ports cut into the trunk, and arrested.

Ms. Albarus, also originally from Jamaica, achieved something of a breakthrough, at least in part by using Jamaican patois to establish a measure of trust. Within months, Mr. Malvo was writing "Dear Mom" letters to her, still desperately seeking the parental care and approval that he never had.

In an unsparing but still remarkably sympathetic account, Ms. Albarus, whose involvement in the Malvo case was to provide expert testimony as to mitigating factors for the defence, traces the sad arc that turned the Bible-carrying, but fatherless and desperate, Caribbean boy into a target ripe for the malevolent Mr. Muhammad.

"He was putty in his hands," she says of the troubled, sweet and studious teenager who so wanted to please. "He was abused and abandoned."

It's a terrifying tale of dependency and manipulation. "Good job, son," Mr. Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran, tells the boy after a small success on a video game in Antigua where they met. Less than two years later, the teenager – ready to prove himself capable of the ultimate test – walked up to the front door of a home in Tacoma, Wash., and fired a handgun into the face of the woman who opened the door. He was two days short of his 17th birthday.

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In between are long months of relentless training: marksmanship, fasting, soldiering, brutal discipline all mixed with odd strands of race politics, extremist religion and hate that transformed the young Mr. Malvo into the only solider in Mr. Muhammad's mad army.

On that Tacoma doorstep, 21-year-old Kenya Cook was killed. She wasn't even the intended victim. It was her aunt, Isa Nichols, whom Mr. Muhammad wanted killed, apparently for her testimony in a case that gave his ex-wife custody of their children.

No matter. When a still-shaking Mr. Malvo met his mentor minutes later, the older man gave him a wallet with a new set of identification cards: "This is your new name … Lee Boyd Malvo no longer exists." Instead, he had earned the name John Lee Muhammad and he had "found" a father.

Nine months and nearly a dozen random shootings later, as the two crossed the country, stealing and killing, the relentless sniper attacks began.

The killing spree all but paralyzed Washington and its environs. Schoolyards were closed, people bobbed and ducked as they pumped gas, tarpaulins were draped around parking lots. Unlike Washington's grim routine of drug-related killings that barely make the newspapers, the sniper attacks riveted the nation.

Meanwhile, the snipers were secretly revelling in the media attention and coldly plotting their next attack. They made ransom demands and left tarot cards at killing sites – all seemingly intended to heighten the terror. Anyone who lived anywhere near Washington in October, 2002, can remember how well it worked.

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Ten people were killed, another three were wounded but survived. The victims were young and old, black and white, male and female. Ordinary people doing ordinary things: getting off a bus, mowing a lawn, walking out of a fast-food joint or into a school. All felled, usually with a single, well-aimed shot from a powerful, unseen rifle. Another 11 shootings from the West Coast to Alabama, five of them fatal, were subsequently linked to the sniper pair and – at one point – Mr. Malvo claimed more than 40 people had been gunned down, although that total hasn't been substantiated.

In the book, co-author Jonathan Mack, a forensic and clinical neuropsychologist, provides a companion analysis of the various and interwoven mental illnesses that made Mr. Malvo vulnerable and allowed him to be so controlled by Mr. Mohammad.

"Mohammad got Malvo to lose his identity … he subsumed it" and then created a new one. "It was almost like multiple personalities," Dr. Mack said.

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