- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

A would-be reggae singer and friend of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad was arrested yesterday for questioning in the three-week shooting rampage in Maryland, Virginia and the District that killed 10 persons and wounded three others.
Nathaniel O. Osbourne, a 26-year-old Jamaican, was taken into custody in Flint, Mich., more than 600 miles from his home in Camden, N.J., after federal authorities had obtained a sealed material witness warrant on Friday.
A massive search for Mr. Osbourne began after he ignored a public plea by federal authorities to voluntarily come forward to discuss his involvement in the purchase of the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that the sniper task force believes Mr. Muhammad and John Lee Malvo used to hunt their victims.
It was not clear yesterday why Mr. Osbourne fled New Jersey. He is being held at the Genesee County Jail in Flint, said agent William Kowalski, head of the FBI's Flint office.
FBI spokeswoman Linda Vizi said federal agents and Camden police had canvassed several local neighborhoods, establishing Mr. Osbourne's ties to other areas of the country. She said that information was disseminated nationwide, and he was traced to an address in Flint, where he was taken into custody without resistance yesterday morning.
Mr. Osbourne was co-owner with Mr. Muhammad of the Caprice, which was purchased for $250 on Sept. 10 from a used car dealership known as Sure Shot Auto in Trenton, N.J. The car was registered to Mr. Osbourne on September 11.
Investigators said Mr. Osbourne is not suspected in the shooting spree that began Oct. 2 with the slaying of James D. Martin, 55, of Silver Spring, who was killed in a grocery store parking lot in Wheaton, and continued through Tuesday, when bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, was fatally shot in Aspen Hill.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said investigators believe Mr. Osbourne "can provide valuable information to law-enforcement authorities."
He is scheduled for an initial court appearance this morning.
Investigators are expected to ask Mr. Osbourne about his efforts in helping Mr. Muhammad buy the Caprice and about a "gun port" found in the trunk a hole through which the suspected snipers are believed to have fired at some of their victims.
The 3-inch diameter hole was cut in the rear of the trunk lid, investigators said, and the back seat was modified so that someone could crawl into the trunk to shoot. Police believe the snipers fired from a vehicle because of a dearth of evidence at most of the crime scenes.
Mr. Osbourne worked at a Caribbean take-out restaurant in Camden known as Nations Cuisine and was attempting to begin a reggae career. Authorities said Mr. Muhammad had been observed eating at the restaurant on several occasions and that Mr. Osbourne lived in an apartment nearby.
Authorities searched the Camden area on Friday after the Osbourne warrant had been issued but later expanded the search area after they talked with several of Mr. Osbourne's family members and friends.
Christopher Okupski, owner of Sure Shot Auto Sales, said Mr. Osbourne introduced Mr. Muhammad to him as his uncle when they purchased the Chevrolet Caprice. He said Mr. Muhammad told him he needed the car a former police cruiser in Bordentown Township, N.J., for his son. He said it was not clear why the two men listed themselves as co-owners of a $250 vehicle.
"I found it odd because the car was so cheap," he said, adding that Mr. Osbourne seemed reluctant to sign the papers. "Muhammad really wanted Nathaniel's name on it."
Bordentown Township Mayor Mark Roselli said the car was sold at public auction in October 2001. He said any alterations made to the trunk "to accommodate the heinous acts of the alleged snipers did not occur while Bordentown Township owned this vehicle."
Mr. Muhammad, 41, and Mr. Malvo, 17, were arrested in the vehicle early Thursday at a Maryland rest stop where they were sleeping. A .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle found in the car was matched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms through ballistics tests to 11 of the 13 sniper shootings.
Arrest warrants filed Friday in Montgomery County accuse the pair in six of the killings. The two individuals also were named Friday in an arrest warrant filed in Montgomery, Ala., where they are suspected of killing a clerk during a Sept. 21 robbery at a liquor store.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said that prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Mr. Muhammad, and that the teenager would be tried as an adult, although Maryland prosecutors are precluded from seeking the death penalty against a minor.
Virginia authorities have no such prohibition and could bring separate death-penalty charges against both individuals.
The Justice Department, with Attorney General John Ashcroft out of the country, has not publicly weighed into the debate over who should prosecute the case.
But U.S. Attorneys Paul J. McNulty from Virginia, Thomas M. DiBiagio from Maryland and Roscoe C. Howard Jr. from the District met Friday with Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson to decide if the suspects should face federal charges.
A department official said that under federal law, the suspects could face the death penalty under conspiracy charges if prosecutors can prove they were involved in a continuing criminal enterprise. The motive for their actions would have to be the $10 million ransom they are said to have requested in exchange for stopping the shootings.
Meanwhile, investigators continued to pore over a letter found tacked to a tree behind a steakhouse in Ashland, Va., where a 37-year-old man was shot and critically wounded on Oct. 19.
The letter, wrapped in plastic, is believed to be key evidence as investigators make further efforts to link the suspects to the shootings. Neatly printed, it said the shooters had contacted authorities on several occasions and provided clues that tied them to the Alabama shooting.
"For you, Mr. Police. Call me God. Do not release to the press," the note read, adding specifics of a telephone call to a "priest at Ashland." The Rev. William V. Sullivan of Ashland later was contacted by investigators and said he remembered that a caller had mentioned the Alabama shooting.
The letter, which authorities believe was written by the teenager, includes a demand for $10 million and gives the 16-digit account number and a PIN number for a Bank of America platinum credit card, which was stolen from a Greyhound bus driver in Flagstaff, Ariz. The card later was used to purchase gas in Tacoma, Wash., where Mr. Muhammad once lived.
It also states that if authorities comply, there would be "less body bags If we give you our word that is what takes place. Word is bond." That phrase is believed to have its roots in reggae music.
The letter also contains a postscript: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."
In addition, police in Tacoma, Wash., are taking a new look at a February slaying after learning that Mr. Muhammad knew the family of the victim, a spokesman said.
Keenya Cook, 21, was shot to death Feb. 16 when she opened the door of her home. Her boyfriend was questioned in the case but cleared, Tacoma police spokesman Jim Mattheis said.
Miss Cook's family recognized Mr. Muhammad from news photos after his arrest and called authorities, Mr. Mattheis said.
"His name had never surfaced in the investigation," Mr. Mattheis said, adding that knowing that Mr. Muhammad was acquainted with the victim has sent police back into evidence collected in the case.
The sniper suspect was in the Army at Fort Lewis near Tacoma off and on starting in 1985 and lived in Tacoma after he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1994.
"Every jurisdiction around here is looking at cold cases," Mr. Mattheis said.
Police in Redmond, east of Seattle, are looking into the unsolved shooting of a woman in late July, police spokeswoman Betsy Cable said.
Victoria Mardis, 49, was shot with a handgun at close range at about 11 p.m. July 26, Miss Cable said. Police have no suspect or motive and no specific reason for thinking Mr. Muhammad might be involved, Miss Cable said.
The state attorney general's office is looking through its files of 5,048 homicides in Washington state since 1981 1,372 of them unsolved to see if any could be linked to Mr. Muhammad, spokesman Gary Larson said.
"We read the newspapers. We've taken a look at various things, based on what we've read," Mr. Larson said.
He declined to say if any of the unsolved slayings were similar to the sniper slayings. "Any results would be passed along to the appropriate law-enforcement agency," Mr. Larson said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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