Cheryll Witz was in the Costco in Tucson, Ariz., shopping for a birthday cake when her cell phone rang. Waiting to speak to her was one of the nation's most notorious serial killers — the man who five years ago had killed her father.
"I need to apologize for what I've done to you and your family," Lee Boyd Malvo told her on Sept. 20.
Witz stood, stunned, in the shopping aisles.
"I was standing in the Costco bawling my eyes out," she said.
In March 2002, Malvo shot and killed Witz's father, Jerry Taylor, as he practiced chip shots on a golf-course practice green. Taylor's murder was a precursor to a killing spree that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area, in which the teenage Malvo and partner John Allen Muhammad killed 10 people and wounded three others over a three-week span that began Oct. 2, 2002.
Malvo placed the call to Witz through a third party. He had initially called a producer at ABC News, who then used three-way calling to connect Malvo to Witz after she agreed to take the call.
Such calls violate prison policy, said Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor. He would not comment, though, on Malvo's specific phone calls or whether he has called any other victims. A network spokesperson said the producer did not know three-way calls were prohibited, and would not have connected the two had she been aware.
Witz confirmed to The Associated Press that she received the call. At one point, she said Malvo broke down as he spoke.
"The first thing he said was, 'I tried to write a letter to you but I couldn't. I didn't know what to say,"' Witz said.
Witz has tried for years to learn more about the circumstances of her father's death, and at one point even wrote to Malvo urging him to divulge what he knew.
Unfortunately, some of the answers Malvo provided in the brief, five-minute call were far from comforting.
For personal reasons, Witz did not want to discuss all the details of the call, particularly those surrounding the exact circumstances of her father's death. But she said some of what Malvo said raised more questions in her mind about exactly what happened and why.
"I would like to know why they picked my father," she said.
For several years after Taylor's murder, Malvo was a suspect but the case remained open. Last year, after Witz wrote to Malvo, he confessed his involvement to Tucson police, who now consider the matter closed.
Pima County prosecutors do not intend to prosecute Malvo, who already has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The death penalty is not an option because the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of juvenile criminals, and Malvo had just turned 17 when he shot and killed Taylor. Muhammad has been sentenced to death.
Witz had thought Malvo's confession might help her find closure, but instead it only raised more questions. Malvo told police that Taylor's murder was part of a hired hit, at least according to the information Muhammad gave him.
Tucson police have rejected that motive, and Witz said she can't think of anybody who would have had a grudge against her father. But certain facts don't fit. Malvo told Witz, for instance, that Muhammad and Malvo had photos of Jerry Taylor before the pair ever arrived in Tucson. Witz wonders where those pictures came from.
In transcripts of Malvo's confession to Tucson police, Malvo said he asked where the pictures came from but was told by Muhammad that information was on a "a need-to-know basis." Tucson police last year said they followed up on some of what Malvo said in his confession but that it could not be corroborated.
Malvo's attorney from his first trial, Craig Cooley, said Malvo may not be the best source for determining the real reasons behind the killings. Malvo only knew what Muhammad told him, and much of what Muhammad said was plainly ridiculous, Cooley said.
For instance, Malvo believed Muhammad when told that the $10 million ransom sought from the government to stop the sniper killings would be used to establish a Utopian society for 140 homeless children on a Canadian compound.
Witz's feelings toward Malvo remain conflicted. She remains angry but said it was important to her to hear his apology directly. She hopes Malvo will follow through on a promise he made during the call to write to her.
"I told him that I was glad he didn't get the death penalty. I told him, 'You need to think about what you've done,"' Witz said. "He said, 'The Lee then and Lee now are two different people."'