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Ponder at Ponderosa

Snipers, fear and a country-style buffet: the day John Allen Muhammad upstaged the Center of the Universe.

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It took a complete face-lift to erase the bloody memories from the faAade of the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland. Bright-green neon trim and neat, bistro-style stonework replaced what was dreary 1980s architecture just months after the infamous Beltway Sniper struck.

Seven years later, satisfied diners sit in newly upholstered booths among piles of plates, the remains of multiple trips through the buffet line, laughing and smiling.

Neon and stone have erased some memories, and a manager says the store owners are “pretty adamant about us not talking” about snipers. But the restaurant's rear parking lot tells plenty of stories.

The place hasn't changed. The same gentle, misting rain that fell Oct. 19, 2002, stipples the dark sky and creates an eerie, soft halo around the boxed halogen light pole that's centered at the rear of the parking lot.

Last week, at 9:10 p.m. on Nov. 10, John Allen Muhammad, the mastermind of the shootings that gripped Virginia and Maryland for three weeks in 2002, drew his final breaths while strapped to a gurney in the impersonal execution theater at Greensville Correctional Center.

In Ashland that oily light still illuminates the same bare, cavelike patch in the otherwise thick tree line that made such an impression on me seven years ago. I first took note of this mawing spot in the woods the day after a single shot from this same tree line had seriously wounded Jeffrey Hopper, a 37-year-old vacationer from Florida.

Though 11 other victims had been shot before Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, came to Ashland, the Ponderosa became the Center of the Universe for television viewers while the sniper drama accelerated toward its final act.

Mike Bumbry was at the epicenter of that universe that night — quite possibly even in the crosshairs for a moment. And last week he watched CNN's coverage of the execution with eager attention.

Back then he was a senior at Patrick Henry High School and worked as a server on nights and weekends at the Ponderosa. 

“I remember it pretty vividly,” Bumbry says. He was working the 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift. “There was a table where through a conversation I realized we had a common friend,” he says, “and they left before I got to say goodbye.”

Bumbry followed them into the rear parking lot.

“They were almost back at the back of the parking lot,” he says. “I was wearing one of these horrific bright green [uniform] shirts — I was waving my arms SOS-style at them.”

They said their goodbyes and he went back inside. Seconds later, a frantic co-worker came in saying someone had been shot. There was no question of who the shooter was — and no question in Bumbry's mind that he'd somehow cheated death.

He'd been waving “in the direction of the gun,” Bumbry says. “It happened within seconds” of returning to the restaurant. “I easily could have not survived.”

Bumbry is on staff at Temple University in Pennsylvania, but only this past summer ended his employment at Ponderosa. Muhammad's execution served as yet another bookend for him. “I don't think this is a story that will die with Muhammad,” he says.

I'd tend to agree. The night before the shooting I'd been sitting in standstill traffic on southbound Interstate 95, somewhere outside Fredericksburg, reflecting on the inappropriateness of my wardrobe choice.

Decked out in rumpled, grimy military fatigues and with a stash of World War II-era weapons — rifles and machine guns — in the trunk, I was stuck in a traffic crawl that slowly was making its way toward a police checkpoint.

More than two weeks earlier the talk of the newsroom at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where I was a Metro beat reporter at the time, was that a visit from Beltway Sniper sure would be a diverting change of pace. Now I was kicking myself as the World War II re-enactor with whom I'd spent the last two days camping for a story was easing his BMW off the interstate and onto the back roads in an effort to escape an all-out State Police dragnet.

Last week I cruised through Ashland in my truck listening to jazz. Occasionally NPR radio news breaks in to note Muhammad's impending end. Ashland is quiet while the rain cleans the streets, but there's certainly no fear here like there was in 2002.

Despite the rain, parents stand outside Dianne Hale's dance studio on Route 54 watching through the wide plate-glass window while little ballerinas twirl.

Looking for more signs of life, I go to Andy's Lounge. Opened in 1944, Andy's is burdened with a somewhat undeserved but persistent Ashland reputation as the watering hole for the hardcore locals. On this night the pub's owner, Jim Carnahan, sits at the end of the bar while his wife, Sylvia, serves. The light Tuesday-night crowd humming around him, he tells me about himself, his wife, his bar.

“I was here that night,” he says, an image of Muhammad flashing across a TV tuned to CNN above the bar. “I remember the helicopters flying overhead.” 

It's 9:30 p.m. and CNN is doing its recap; Muhammad has breathed his last.

From the end of the bar another customer, a small framed woman with a husky voice who's been nursing the computer poker machine most of the night, suddenly tunes in. Her gaze settles on Muhammad's hardened eyes staring back at her.

He's dead and she suddenly breaks her reverie. “I believe in the death penalty,” she says aloud. “I've got no problem with it.”

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