'I was a monster, a thief. I stole people's lives.' The Washington sniper Lee Boyd Malvo speaks, 10 years on

For three weeks in 2002, Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Mohammad terrorised a nation. While Mohammad was put to death for murdering 16 people at random, his accomplice, who was 17 at the time, was spared execution. Josh White meets him

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Lee Boyd Malvo said he remembers each of the sniper shootings in detail. But one moment – one image – stands out among the carnage of that terrifying time 10 years ago: "Mr Franklin's eyes." Malvo remembers being in the blue Chevrolet Caprice. He scanned the area to make sure John Allen Muhammad had a clean shot. He gave the "go" order and looked across Route 50 at the target. Muhammad, hidden on a hill above, pulled the trigger. A bullet screamed across the highway, instantly killing Linda Franklin, who had been going about her business at a shop in Seven Corners, Virginia, at precisely the wrong time.

He remembers her husband Ted Franklin's eyes – the devastation, the shock, the sadness after the shot. "They are penetrating," Malvo said in a rare media interview from prison.

"It is the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life. His eyes… Words do not possess the depth in which to fully convey that emotion and what I felt when I saw it… You feel like the worst piece of scum on the planet."

It has been 10 years since Malvo and Muhammad went on one of the most notorious killing sprees in America's hi story. Over 21 days in October 2002, the pair ambushed 13 unsuspecting strangers, killing 10 of them, in the Washington area. They succeeded in terrorising the region, as death could come anywhere, anytime: in gas stations and car parks. They even shot and wounded a 13-year-old standing in front of school.

After the two were caught, they were tied to at least 11 more shootings from Washington state to Alabama, five of them fatal. Muhammad is gone – executed in 2009 for his crimes. Malvo, the scrawny teenager and cold-blooded accomplice, is now 27.

He speaks with animation and poise, and with an adult perspective on what he did. He claims to understand the enormity of his actions — the trail of death and loss and pain he left behind.

"I was a monster," Malvo said. "If you look up the definition, that's what a monster is. 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."

Retired FBI agent Brad Garrett, who helped question Malvo in 2002, said he's not surprised by what Malvo is saying now in 2012. "When we interviewed him, our belief was that he was under the spell of Muhammad and that would wear off as time went on," Mr Garrett said. Interrogators, "knew that he was covering for Muhammad. He wouldn't put the gun in Muhammad's hands in 2002. The spell was starting to wear off at trial, and now that he's in jail for his entire life he's probably being more realistic about what Muhammad did and didn't do. He's older, and he understands now how impressionable he was."

Malvo spoke through plexiglass in the stark cinder-block visitation room at Red Onion State Prison, a remote supermax facility tucked among Virginia's Appalachian coal mines, about eight hours from Washington. He is confined to a small, segregation cell for 23 hours a day – he gets to exercise in an enclosed pen, take showers and sometimes do menial jobs on his own during that other hour. He has no physical interaction with other inmates. He has taken a deep interest in yoga and meditation. Though at peace with a life behind bars – "I see opportunity everywhere" – Malvo said he has had to work hard to recover from what he calls a total brainwashing at the hands of a "sinister" and "evil" man who manipulated him into an effective "killing machine".

Jurors spared Malvo's life, largely because they believed that while he was responsible for the killings, he was also under Muhammad's control. Malvo grew up in Jamaica and Antigua, and he looks back at the 14-year-old who met Muhammad as if he's a million miles away. That boy was bouncing from his father to his mother and enduring physical abuse.

"The groundwork was laid in Antigua because I leaned on him, I trusted him," Malvo said. "I was unable to distinguish between Muhammad the father I had wanted, and Muhammad the nervous wreck that was just falling to pieces. He understood exactly how to motivate me by giving approval or denying approval."

In 2001, Malvo, Muhammad and Muhammad's three children left Antigua for the United States. Malvo briefly lived with his mother in Florida before boarding a bus to be with his "dad," Muhammad, in Tacoma, Washington. It was around the time that Muhammad was losing his own children to his ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad. A judge ordered that the children could live with her in secrecy. Malvo said it devastated Muhammad, and he switched from a caring father figure to a steely and erratic leader.

Malvo said that Muhammad had him go to a gun range nearly every day, where he learned how to shoot dozens of different weapons. Muhammad would lurk over Malvo's shoulder and tell him to envision himself shooting and killing the old Lee Malvo, the weak Lee Malvo.

So Malvo shot at himself, over and over and over again. When it came time for the first killing – Kenya Cook, 21, in Tacoma in February 2002 – Malvo said it was almost automatic. He saw his own face on Ms Cook's and was thinking he shot himself. He said he doesn't even remember what she looked like. He vomited later, racked with grief.

"That was the beginning of the end," Malvo said. "I knew I was going to die one way or the other, that going down this path ended with my death."

Ms Cook, whose only sin was being in a house where a friend of Mildred Muhammad's was staying, was the first victim in a spree that hit California, Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, and Virginia. Malvo said there were at least 200 crimes that ranged from the murders everyone remembers to robberies and assaults.

"We were searching for Mildred," he said, adding that everything they did was toward the goal of finding her and getting the children back. There was military precision to the attacks, and then there were after-action briefings, in which Muhammad would critique the crimes down to the finest details, Malvo said. "Day in, day out, he controlled what I read, what I did, what I ate, my itinerary, when I slept."

But deep down, Malvo said, there were still elements of his former self. He said there were several times when he thought about killing himself and once when he pulled a gun on Muhammad. He also said there was one time he drew a line: Muhammad told Malvo he had to kill a pregnant woman, and Malvo couldn't bring himself to do it.

Malvo said he carried out the crimes that involved getting close to people, such as handgun shootings and robberies, or any shooting that involved possibly getting caught. He called Muhammad "a coward" and believes that Muhammad was setting him up to take the fall.

Malvo said that he felt as if Muhammad kept him on a "need to know" basis and that he did not know what the plan was until long into the shootings. He said the five shootings in Montgomery County on the morning of 3 October, 2002, were based "on a strategy of compacting everything in one area" so that they could "use the system against itself" and overwhelm authorities. They spent weeks scoping out 60 different spots.

On the day of the shootings, they would drive up to one of the spots and stay there for 10 minutes. If a shot presented itself, they took it.

Malvo said he took the shots that injured 13-year-old Iran Brown at a middle school on 7 October – "Imagine that, a kid, shooting a kid," he said, slapping his right hand to his forehead – and Jeffrey Hopper at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia on 19 October. He said he also killed Conrad Johnson, the final sniper shooting, on 22 October, in Aspen Hill.

The pair were aware of the media coverage and tailored some of their actions accordingly, Malvo said. The focus on white van and white trucks at the scene of the killings led Malvo to call shots when there were white vans and trucks nearby, knowing the vehicles would draw attention away from them.

In Ashland, he said he wandered up to the news conferences in a brightly-coloured jumper and spoke to police officers and others, asking what was going on. He called it "intelligence collection" and said he did the same thing at other scenes. He said the killings became remarkably routine. The victims weren't victims – they were targets, he said.

"There is no feeling," Malvo said. "At that point in time, I had been desensitised. I'd been killing people for months, if not a whole year, day in and day out. In the midst of the task, there is no feeling… It got to a point where I'd get in a zone.

"There was nothing else but whoever is before me, and anything that comes between me and, as you would say, the target, I'm either going to destroy, or if it's too big, find a way around it. Nothing is going to stop me but death to get that done.

"I was able to tap into a place that if there was a soul there it was behind layers and layers and layers of darkness."

After their arrest, Malvo took the blame for all the shootings in early interviews with police, at times bragging about certain shots and killings. Now, he says, those interviews were planned attempts to deflect responsibility from Muhammad.

"…I did everything I thought I could do to save his life," he said. "What's crazy is this entire process. I'm concerned for him, and he doesn't give a rat's ass whether I live or die."

Malvo said the most enduring memory about the shootings for him, next to Ted Franklin's eyes, is something he realized when he returned to Virginia after testifying against Muhammad in Maryland. He saw an educational television show in which Stanton Samenow – a clinical psychologist who testified as an expert against Malvo at trial – explained that a criminal's actions do not devastate just a single family but also their neighbours, their community, anyone the victim knew.

"Once I began to list the victims for every single possible crime that I could think of, the number, quickly, it was like multiplying by seven. It just exponentially grew," Malvo said. "The enormity of it. When you're in the midst of doing the shooting, that was my sole focus. I didn't give it thought… You never get a grasp on what exactly you actually did and what the ramifications were for others."

Malvo is outwardly apologetic to his victims and their families. When asked what he would say directly to them, he implored people to forget about him.

"We can never change what happened," Malvo said. "There's nothing that I can say except don't allow me and my actions to continue to victimise you for the rest of your life. It may sound cold, but it's not. It's the only sound thing I can offer. You and you alone have the power to control that. And, you take the power away from this other person, this monster, and you take control…"

"Don't allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life," Malvo said. "It isn't worth it."