- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

What Montgomery County police described as a "coast-to-coast search of unsolved crimes" for links to the two sniper suspects in federal custody returned to where it began yesterday as officials announced a connection to a Sept. 14 shooting in Silver Spring.

Authorities said last night that a Sept. 14 shooting outside a beer and wine store in the Hillandale section of Silver Spring is linked to the series of other sniper shootings police believe were committed by John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17.

"I knew that it was linked all along," Arnie Zelkovitz, the owner of the Hillandale Beer and Wine store, where a store clerk was wounded, said last night. "It was just a matter of time before they finally decided they were going to link it."

The Hillandale shooting was linked by witnesses who said they saw Mr. Muhammad's 1990 Chevrolet Caprice leaving a nearby parking lot after the shooting. It predates by more than two weeks the series of sniper attacks in Maryland, Virginia and the District that killed 10 and wounded three.

Rupinder Oberoi, 22, was in the parking lot outside the Hillandale liquor store with Mr. Zelkovitz after closing time when he was shot.

"We heard the shot. I thought it was a kid playing with a firecracker or something," Mr. Oberoi said. "Then I stopped breathing for about 10 seconds, and my boss looked at my back and there was a small hole. He knew I got shot."

Mr. Muhammad and his teenage companion are suspected of having traveled more than 2,300 miles in the beat-up Caprice in 18 days, killing two persons and wounding one along the way.

In Montgomery, Ala., the scene of the first of those shootings, police announced yesterday that bullet fragments recovered from the Sept. 21 shooting of Claudine Parker at a liquor store matched the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in other sniper shootings.

On Thursday, law enforcement officials in Louisiana said ballistic evidence also links the rifle to a Sept. 23 shooting in Baton Rouge. That shooting killed beauty-shop employee Hong Im Ballenger, 45, with a single gunshot wound to the head.

"We're beginning to see they left a trail of violence, coast to coast," Montgomery County Police spokesman Officer Derek Baliles said.

The pair already face state and federal charges, including a 20-count federal criminal complaint and murder charges that have been filed by authorities at the state level in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana.

They have also been linked by police in Tacoma, Wash., to the February killing of 21-year-old Keenya Cook, though charges have not yet been brought in that case.

The investigation into the October sniper shootings appears to span more than eight months and 19 shootings that stretch from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Shootings as far away as Lansing, Mich., are also being given a closer look for connections. There is no evidence placing the suspects in Michigan, but last week's arrest about an hour from Lansing of a man who helped Mr. Muhammad buy the Caprice in New Jersey was enough for local authorities to re-evaluate at least one unsolved killing in that city.

The June 2001 shooting of Bernita White outside a zoo in Lansing "was a sniper situation," and investigators are "exploring" it for links to the sniper rampage, said Lansing police Capt. Steve Luciano.

Although investigators "believe it was a rifle shot" that killed Mrs. White, "we don't have details, such as ballistics evidence," Capt. Luciano said. He added that the case "remains open" but that other leads are being pursued with equal interest.

Authorities in Montgomery County said that in addition to searching for links between the sniper suspects and previous killings, police are interested in lesser crimes that may explain how the suspects could have funded the extensive travel involved in the sniper rampage.

An investigation by police in Antigua and a separate investigation by the FBI on that Caribbean island have focused on accusations that Mr. Muhammad supported his nomadic lifestyle by selling phony passports, driver's licenses and credit cards.

Mr. Muhammad lived in Antigua in 2000 and 2001. While there, he is suspected of selling counterfeit identity papers and stolen credit cards for $1,000 to $3,500 each in a scheme that authorities described this week as a "one-man operation."

One federal official said investigators believe Mr. Muhammad was "actively involved" in the sale of driver's licenses, both in Antigua and in the United States, noting that several were found in the Chevrolet Caprice in which Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were arrested. Many of those licenses, the official said, contained Mr. Muhammad's picture but with different names.

Meanwhile, yesterday FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III defended his agency's handling of a tip line set up to take calls from the public related to the sniper investigation. There had been accusations that information from many callers, including the sniper, was not taken seriously by those taking the calls.

The tip line generated more than 107,000 leads and led investigators to the two suspects. Mr. Mueller said a review is under way to find ways to train people better for handling calls, whether they should all be automatically recorded, and how to log them and assess priorities.

Bureau trainees were among those answering calls. Mr. Mueller said he's not aware of any conduct that deserves disciplinary action.

The cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement officials during the three-week sniper siege of the Washington area was "truly remarkable," the type of cross-jurisdictional work law enforcement agencies must do to detect and catch terrorists, Mr. Mueller said.

"This is the way we're going to have to work in the future if we're going to be successful," he said.

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