- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

From combined dispatches

America's first hint of a major break in the Washington-area sniper case came from the other side of the country Wednesday evening, as news channels broadcast images showing law enforcement officers swarming over the yard of a duplex in Tacoma, Wash.

The Tacoma house was where suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, reportedly had lived earlier this year. Some neighbors described them as transients or "nomads."

It was still daylight in the Pacific Northwest when news helicopters hovering over the duplex in the 3300 block of Proctor Street broadcast the scene of investigators who used yellow crime-scene tape to mark off the back yard in a grid and then carefully swept over the ground with metal detectors.

In an apparent search for bullets for ballistics testing, other law-enforcement agents closely examined a 3-foot-high tree stump that Mr. Muhammad was reported to have used for target practice.

During the search, one neighbor saw an agent apparently X-raying the stump. The agent "pulled out the negative and held it up to the sky and that's when they decided to remove the stump," neighbor Terry Jakobs told the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Agents used a backhoe to uproot the stump and load it into the back of a truck.

Neighbor Chris Waters, 23, an Army private, told the Seattle Times that he often heard Mr. Muhammad in the back yard firing two- or three-shot bursts of high-powered ammunition.

"It was three shots in a row boom, boom, boom," said neighbor Brian Jones, 37, describing the backyard target practice. But the gunfire was not particularly unusual, Mr. Jones said. "In Tacoma, you hear shots all the time. You don't think much of it."

Tacoma is the county seat of Pierce County, Wash., which has a population of about 700,000 that is 83 percent white and 8 percent black. Pierce County, with a per capita income of about $26,000, is a more blue-collar community than Seattle's King County, where per capita income is about $20,000 higher.

Pierce County is home to about 20,000 military personnel, stationed at four major military installations in the area.

The blue wood-frame Tacoma duplex is in a neighborhood where many of the residents are senior citizens, or soldiers based at Fort Lewis, some 15 miles to the south. Mr. Muhammad was once stationed there in the Army.

One neighbor told the Post Intelligencer he had noticed law-enforcement agents in unmarked cars watching the neighborhood a week ago.

Mr. Muhammad, born John Allen Williams, reportedly converted to Islam several years ago, but changed his name only last year. While law enforcement officials have not discussed a motive for the sniper attacks, the possibility of a terrorist connection recalled several recent events in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1999, an Algerian man, Ahmed Ressam, was stopped at the border in Washington state trying to enter from Canada with bomb kits in the trunk of a rental car. He was later convicted of plotting to blow up a Los Angeles airport.

James Ujaama, a Seattle native and Islamic convert, was indicted in August on charges he tried to set up a camp in rural Oregon to train recruits for the al Qaeda terror network.

In Portland, Ore., six residents, including Muslim converts, were indicted this month on charges of attempting to travel to Afghanistan to join al Qaeda.

Mr. Malvo, a Jamaican-born youth who was sometimes described as Mr. Muhammad's stepson, had attended school about a two-hour drive north in Bellingham, near the Canadian border. Both suspects were reported to have stayed at one time in a Bellingham homeless shelter.

Neighbors in Tacoma were surprised that the sniper investigation based 2,700 miles away in Maryland had come to their community near the south end of Puget Sound.

"They came in the morning. They just said they were the FBI it was crazy," Lusi Saumani, who lives next door to the Proctor Street duplex, told the Intelligencer newspaper. "D.C. is on the other side, you know? And to find out they were digging. It's wow."

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