On Oct. 19, 2002, police found an ominous note tacked to a tree behind the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland with a message that might have been addressed directly to the Rev. Msgr. William V. Sullivan: "These people took our calls for a hoax or a joke."
The note, found at the scene of the sniper's latest shooting, came a day after Sullivan, then pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Ashland, interrupted making his grocery list to answer the phone. At first, as Sullivan later testified in court, he thought he was speaking with someone distraught over the shootings in Virginia and Maryland. He sought to calm them.
"Now write this down," the caller told Sullivan, who used his grocery list to jot down what he was told mostly ramblings that left him thinking the caller was a prankster. Frustrated, the caller eventually hung up.
I heard about Sullivan's brush with the Beltway snipers while covering the story for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2002. My knowledge came a day or so after Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad visited Ashland.
Editors told me to call Sullivan to find out what he and the sniper had discussed, but my efforts came up short. I settled for a conversation with the Diocese of Richmond's spokesman, the Rev. Pat Apuzzo.
Father Sullivan died this New Year's Day. Since his brush with infamy, he'd moved on from St. Ann's to become rector at Richmond's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
When I read his obituary, it took me back to that long week in October 2002, when it seemed half of Richmond was ducking as they ran from their front porches to their car doors. I've often thought of what an eerie experience that phone call must have been.
I had known Sullivan a bit from brief meetings during my days as a reporter at the Hanover Herald-Progress. He was then in the midst of building a new sanctuary for the growing St. Ann's parish. He was friendly enough, but didn't have much patience for a young reporter's silly questions. I can see in retrospect how Malvo or Muhammed might have quickly rubbed the no-nonsense priest the wrong way.
And I understood how his reaction might have weighed a bit on his conscience after he found out the snipers had hit Ashland the day after his conversation with them.
"He was very upset over it," retired Bishop Walter Sullivan told me Friday, Jan. 5, the day of the Rev. Sullivan's funeral. "When he got the phone call first of all, he thought someone was pulling his leg he really did."
The two Sullivans aren't related, but they were close friends, and despite their easy relationship, Bishop Sullivan says of the incident, "He never really talked about it."
"He was embarrassed by it, I presume, by his initial reaction first of all," Bishop Sullivan says. "How would any of us react to such a phone call?" S