- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

The excruciating siege by the stealthy sharpshooter who seemed to hold the region's 5 million residents in his cross hairs ended within 23 days because a killer who declared "I am God" grew impatient and let slip one fact too many in an angry phone call.
Now it is sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, who are under siege. They are locked in jail, their own lives on the line as prosecutors from eight jurisdictions squabble over first rights to try the pair in a way most likely to bring a death sentence.
Masterful detective work carried out offstage while critics of the investigation hogged television screens speedily linked a boasting phone call to a Virginia priest about an Alabama robbery-murder to fingerprints of a teenage illegal alien in Washington state nicknamed "Sniper."
The trail of evidence led to the youth's relationship with a Persian Gulf war veteran who owned an old police car, a blue Chevrolet Caprice in which the two sleeping suspects were captured early Thursday at a highway rest stop near Myersville, Md.
Stashed behind a seat of the road-weary 1990 Caprice, purchased by Mr. Muhammad in August for $250, was a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM15 rifle with telescopic sights that investigators say was used to kill 10 persons and wound three others, each with one shot.
It is known that both men spoke by phone with the priest in Ashland, Va., but not which one made other calls and wrote at least two letters to authorities or, most importantly, who pulled the trigger each time. Even so, both men could be found guilty for all the killings.
The question of motive has been elusive, in part because no motive could justify such a rampage. But Mr. Muhammad had told friends he resented having U.S. troops "used as guinea pigs" in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti deserts.
The Pentagon said his Army unit may have been exposed to low levels of chemical weapons tucked away in bunkers destroyed by advancing U.S. troops, Associated Press reported, but it was not clear whether any soldier was harmed.
The AP also reported yesterday that the FBI alerted federal firearms investigators in July that a man named Harjee Singh, in jail on an assault charge in Bellingham, Wash., told agents that Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo had said "they were likely to do a sniper attack."
Supposed targets were police and perhaps a tanker truck. Faced with vague, possibly idle threats, authorities apparently didn't pursue the case.
'Accept our demand'
John Lee Muhammad, who grew up without a father in Baton Rouge, La., converted to Islam in 1985 at age 24 but didn't formally change his last name from Williams to Muhammad until April 23, 2001.
His young Jamaican companion initially was reported to be his stepson, John Lee Malvo, although no documents establish that relationship and birth records carry the name Lee Boyd Malvo.
The most severe heckling of investigators came not from the armchair experts but in two handwritten letters left at crime scenes. In one, the writer revealed he had an accomplice in the shootings and claimed to have killed five victims simply because authorities and others treated their telephone overtures as "a hoax or a joke."
"Your failure to respond has cost five lives," said a letter wrapped in plastic and left tacked to a tree behind the Ponderosa steak house in Ashland, Va., where an unidentified 37-year-old man was critically wounded Oct. 19. The letter wasn't found and read by investigators until after the killer's deadline to comply with demands.
"If stopping the killing is more important than catching us now, then you will accept our demand (sic) which are non-negotiable," said the letter, which appeared organized and calculating despite many errors of grammar, syntax and spelling.
The killers demanded that $10 million be deposited in the account of a Platinum Visa credit card from Bank of America pilfered March 25 in Arizona from the purse of a Greyhound bus driver. The card was used at least once to buy gas in Tacoma, Wash., where Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo had lived. Authorities were instructed to arrange for unlimited withdrawals against the $10 million from automated teller machines throughout the world.
"Try to catch us withdrawing, at least you will have less body bags," the letter said, warning that "trying to catch us now" would trigger more killings.
Then there was this postscript: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."
Tensions eased after authorities announced Thursday evening, 17 hours after the arrests, that they had found the murder weapon in the suspects' car. But that crucial announcement was delayed at least five hours after confirmation of a ballistics match, as victims' families were notified and government leaders summoned for a news conference.
Investigators spoke cautiously about their success, trying to balance assurances of public safety against statements that later might be declared prejudicial to a fair trial.
A duck and a noose
In the waning hours of the unprecedented manhunt, the sniper's bizarre communications forced Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose to recite a demeaning line from a Cherokee fable about a pursuer snared by his own noose: A rabbit who catches a duck in a noose holds on too long when the duck flies away; the rabbit winds up the victim.
By complying in front of the news cameras late Wednesday night after he already knew the names and backgrounds of his quarry, Chief Moose played their game to buy time and avoid more killings.
In real life, the police noose quickly tightened just hours later.
Ron Lantz, 61, an alert truck driver from Kentucky, spotted the fugitives' New Jersey tag about 1 a.m. at a rest stop along Interstate 70, two miles west of Myersville, Md., an hour after the description of the car was broadcast. He was among the first to call 911.
After carefully preparing for almost two hours on the scene, tactical officers woke Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo with a bang, smashing two car windows and using concussion or "flash-bang" grenades to put the men off balance.
Ballistics experts determined that markings on bullets retrieved from eight of the dead and all three wounded were without doubt etched by "lands and grooves" machined into the barrel of the seized rifle, a Bushmaster XM15.
The highly rated civilian rifle, costing about $800 and modeled after a military mainstay, is made by Bushmaster Firearms of Windham, Maine. The manufacturer's Web site calls its rifles "the best, by a long shot."
Gun-industry reviews second that brag, praising the Bushmaster's "superb accuracy" said to allow even a fair marksman to place three shots within a circle 3/4 of an inch across from 100 yards away. Accuracy would be greater with use of a bipod shooting support, like that found in the fugitives' car.
Records show Mr. Muhammad bought a similar .223-caliber Bushmaster in Tacoma, Wash., in late 1999 but sold it back to the same shop on May 23, 2000. The rifle found in his car was shipped from the Maine factory in June to a Tacoma dealer.
Papers filed in federal court in Seattle in connection with the gun charges on which Mr. Muhammad was held quote a Robert Holmes as seeing his friend four months ago with a similar rifle, fitted with a scope and packed in an aluminum carrying case.
The court documents say Mr. Muhammad fantasized with friends about how much more damage he could do by adding a silencer. No silencer was found. Witnesses heard particularly loud reports at the shooting scenes.
False leads, questions
The arrests illuminated some false trails.
For weeks, virtually every driver of a white van was suspect, and many were handcuffed in traffic stops. A swarm of cable-TV "profilers" predicted the shooter would be a white male in his early 20s, certainly no older than 35. It turned out that neither the shooter nor the getaway vehicle was white.
Police confirmed that the suspects, who generally were living out of their nondescript car and showering at a YMCA, checked into motels near the sites of three Virginia shootings at Manassas, Spotsylvania and Ashland. Though police throughout the region checked out their car and its tags at least 10 times, traffic stops never brought the two under suspicion.
Even as Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were jailed under precautions intended to shelter them from public rage, key questions were yet to be answered: Which man did the shooting? Were they both triggermen?
DNA samples taken from shooting sites reportedly show they come from the same person, but authorities did not disclose who.
Alabama authorities believe that Mr. Muhammad, not Mr. Malvo as first reported, fired the fatal shots outside a liquor store last month in Montgomery, Ala. A .22-caliber handgun was the murder weapon. Authorities have not reported finding that gun.
Mr. Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on Feb. 18, 1985. Mr. Muhammad was born in Baton Rouge on New Year's Eve 1960.
The 6-foot-2 Mr. Muhammad is a failed businessman and homeless Army veteran who qualified as "expert" in firing an M-16 rifle and throwing hand grenades.
His regular Army service ended after nine years with his 1994 discharge as a sergeant under less than honorable conditions. The Pentagon would not reveal its terms because of privacy laws. His decorations were routine, and not for valor. He also served in the National Guard in Louisiana and Oregon.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reacted angrily to reporters' questions about the fact that, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Mr. Muhammad was an Army veteran of Desert Storm. "I think that's ludicrous to think this is a black eye on the military," said Gen. Myers.
Mr. Muhammad was twice based at Ft. Lewis, Wash., but did not attend the Army sniper school there. The five-week course produces more than 200 graduates a year. Admission requires the expert rating on the M-16, a clean disciplinary record and psychological screening, and no history of alcohol or drug abuse.
Mr. Muhammad's Army jobs included doing metalwork, driving a water truck and disarming Iraqi rockets in Kuwait as a combat engineer. In divorce papers, his second wife described him as a "demolitions expert."
Mystery companion
Less is known about the teen arrested with him, whom a former neighbor knew by the nickname Sniper. Police in Bellingham, Wash., investigated Mr. Malvo's background in December at the request of school officials and found no record of him.
Mr. Malvo attended Bellingham High School from October until mid-December 2001. Grand jury subpoenas for his school records and handwriting samples were served Wednesday.
"We were unable to determine where he had come from and were unable to verify any transcripts or any prior education. We lost contact with him and he moved on," Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll said.
Mr. Malvo apparently attended Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, Fla., for less than two months. His mother, Uma James, 38, worked in that city as a restaurant cook from January until November 2001 while her son moved on to Bellingham with Mr. Muhammad.
It is not clear how the two met, but it appears to have been at least five years ago. Mr. Muhammad's former business partner, Felix Strozier, said Mr. Malvo took karate lessons in their Tacoma studio in summer 1997.
"He was a troubled kid, aggressive. He tried to spar too hard, kick too hard," said Mr. Strozier.
Mr. Muhammad lived with the teen and his mother in the east Caribbean island nation of Antigua in 1999, Jamaican radio reported. That year his wife filed for divorce, in part because of an adulterous affair as well as her fears of violence. She charged that he took their three children to Antigua, where he obtained citizenship and a passport.
A senior law-enforcement source told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Mr. Muhammad had a relationship with Mr. Malvo's mother. "The boy eventually latched onto Muhammad," the source said.
The two lived late last year at the Light House Mission in Bellingham, a homeless shelter, while the youth's mother lived at a similar shelter for women.
After she sought help in regaining custody of her son, Bellingham police on Dec. 19 handed mother and son over to immigration officers, who jailed them in Spokane for four weeks.
Mr. Malvo's fingerprints taken at that time eventually linked the Washington area sniper shootings, the slaying in Montgomery, Ala., and the two men who apparently had drawn neighborhood attention by honing shooting skills in the back yard of a rented house in Tacoma.
"After we submitted that fingerprint, you saw this case break wide open. This print put a name with the sniper," said Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright.
Clicking into place
As negotiations broke down over whether federal or local prosecutors would try the two suspects first, and which state had the best prospect of getting a death sentence, both were charged with capital murder in the Sept. 21 slaying of Claudine Lee Parker, 52, manager of Montgomery's ABC Beverages Store No. 5. They also were charged with wounding her co-worker.
A police officer picked Mr. Muhammad out of a "photo lineup" as the man he saw standing over Mrs. Parker's body.
Montgomery County filed six charges of first-degree murder, while Virginia officials prepared to file similar charges for trial later. Federal officials maintained custody of the men pending a decision on a novel legal theory that would allow a federal capital trial as well.
The events leading to their arrests clicked together like the script of a TV thriller.
Detectives capitalized on the frustration the killer or killers voiced after telephone calls to Montgomery County police and the sniper task force's tip line were rebuffed, and because investigators failed to give the priority demanded to the first extortion letter.
That letter said the shooter, in one phone call, could not persuade the Catholic priest in Ashland to listen in the hours before the Ponderosa shooting there. This alerted police to locate that priest, who had not reported the call.
Police sources told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that an officer at the Ponderosa scene recalled seeing Mr. Malvo mingling with reporters and onlookers afterward.
One of the suspects apparently had a three-minute phone conversation with a Montgomery County police spokesman who did not fully understand the caller's references to "Montgomery." It turned out to mean the Alabama city and not the Maryland county at the epicenter of the sniper's rampage.
"Don't you know who you're dealing with? Just check out the murder-robbery in Montgomery if you don't believe me," the caller reportedly told the county officer.
On Friday night, Oct. 18, when investigators believe the two suspects were registered at an Ashland motel, the Rev. William Sullivan got a similar call at the St. Ann's parish office in the nearby town center. He brushed it off and did not call police, said the Rev. Pasquale Apuzzo, secretary to the bishop of the Richmond diocese.
A bit later, at 8 p.m. Eastern time, Mr. Muhammad apparently called the Rev. Jay DeFalco at Assumption parish in Bellingham, where secretary Janene Jensen said the priest was out and invited him to leave a voice-mail message.
"Why isn't he there?" the caller demanded, then hung up.
Father DeFalco later said he knew Mr. Muhammad as a person who visited the parish soup kitchen with Mr. Malvo. The teen participated in an after-school program at the church, he said.
The final piece
The Ponderosa shooting 24 hours later, and a letter found last Sunday in nearby woods, prompted investigators to visit Monsignor Sullivan. The priest immediately recalled his strange call Friday night, Father Apuzzo said.
Monsignor Sullivan said two men called, sounding upset and frustrated as they talked about the murder in Alabama. One declared, "I am God." The priest said one caller told him to write down the message and give it to police, stressing that he meant Montgomery, Ala.
The unknown sniper complained in writing of at least eight rebuffed or unanswered calls, citing times accurately enough that recordings of some calls were located. The first letter listed a call to Rockville city police and to Montgomery County police, four to "female" personnel at the FBI tip line, one to the Ashland priest and another to CNN, which said it has no knowledge of such a call.
Authorities believe a killer was trying to make them understand how serious the situation was, but didn't suspect such communications had begun a process that would nab him.
It was not public knowledge that Mr. Malvo's fingerprints were found on a gun magazine dropped during an unknown man's hairs-breadth escape in Montgomery, Ala., from an officer who saw him standing over the body at the liquor store and came within two feet of grabbing him in a foot chase.
On Sunday evening, Montgomery, Ala. Police Chief John Wilson got a call from one of his detectives saying that the sniper task force was seeking information on an unsolved murder and robbery attempt.
Using a federal computer database not available to many police departments, the task force quickly matched the Alabama fingerprint with the fingerprints taken from Mr. Malvo 10 months earlier in Bellingham for the immigration files.
After local police and federal agents showed up Wednesday morning at 3310 Proctor St. in Tacoma, Army Pfc. Chris Waters and his wife, Deborah, neighbors across the street, said they often heard shooting over one 15-day period.
Investigators combed the yard with metal detectors and X-rayed a huge tree stump, in which they found imbedded bullet fragments.
"I feel like a bad mom, because I didn't catch it," Mrs. Waters said, explaining that she let her son go to a YMCA pool with the two suspects. "I didn't have any intuition about him," she said of Mr. Muhammad. "I completely trusted our neighbors."
The man and boy had "a father and son relationship," she said. "He always said, 'me and my son.'"
Like many others who did not know him well, Mrs. Waters described Mr. Muhammad as "a shy guy, but definitely not mean or evil."
Family matters
His first wife, Carol Kaglear Williams, mother of Travis, 22, married Mr. Muhammad in 1981. They divorced in March 1988.
A few months later he married Mildred Denise Green, an observant Muslim with whom he had three children. She divorced him in 2000. Both divorces produced bitter custody fights.
As Mr. Muhammad roamed the country with Mr. Malvo for much of the last year, he showed up with the teen over the summer at his second wife's home in Clinton, Md., and at his first wife's house in Baton Rouge, relatives and neighbors told reporters.
"John was outgoing and had a good sense of humor. He wasn't a quiet type. He liked to talk. He liked to mingle with people," Carol Williams said.
She said their divorce followed his religious conversion when, she said, "He called and told me what not to feed my child."
A former sister-in-law, Sheron Norman, said that Mr. Muhammad's teenage companion seemed frightened during the Baton Rouge visit and ate only honey, crackers and nutritional supplements.
"He was very, very quiet. You could tell he didn't like the way he was living," Miss Norman told the Baltimore Sun.
Mr. Muhammad was part of the security team for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March" in the District in October 1996, said Leo Dudley, a former Marine who recalled his Tacoma neighbor's muscular handshake.
Mr. Farrakhan yesterday acknowledged that Mr. Muhammad was a member of the Nation of Islam but added, "if he's found guilty of something like this, he would not be considered at all a member."
He was "a black man taking charge of his family," said Brenda Guyer, a neighbor for seven years in Tacoma. "He was very much into being in charge."
The former Army sergeant occasionally showed a violent streak, despite recollections of him as friendly and generous.
Among episodes that drew official attention:
The second of his two summary courts-martial, in April 1983, for striking a sergeant and being absent without leave. He was sentenced to seven days in the brig and fined $100. His first court-martial a year earlier resulted in demotion from sergeant to specialist for being "late to police duty."
A Tacoma judge in March 2000 issued a restraining order on grounds he committed domestic violence on his second wife. Two months later, on May 16, she said he threatened to kill her in Tacoma General Hospital and reported: "I am in fear for my life."
After she obtained a new restraining order in August 2001, Bellingham police went to Parkview Elementary School and seized the couple's three children. They were living with him in a homeless shelter after he returned with them from Antigua.
The getaway car
The scope of the crimes for which Mr. Muhammad now faces a death sentence escalated quickly from a Tacoma shoplifting arrest for stealing a steak in February a charge on which he was wanted for not showing up in court and the bungled robbery in Montgomery, Ala., for which he is charged with capital murder.
He posed many contrasts, this apparent pauper who "could jump on a plane for Jamaica any time he wanted," in the words of Randy Reublin, resident manager of the Bellingham shelter where both suspects lived for several months last year.
Mr. Muhammad was respectful of Christian services at the shelter and abided by rules requiring him to attend chapel each day, Mr. Reublin said.
Mr. Muhammad was ticketed 10 times in two years by Oregon police in 1994-95, when he and Chief Moose served simultaneously in the Oregon National Guard. Chief Moose, then police chief in Portland, was a major in the Air National Guard while Sgt. Muhammad served in the Army National Guard.
His shabby Caprice was modified with a hole in the trunk and fold-down back seat in a way that, investigators say, created a hidden sniper's nest.
The car had piled up more than 140,000 miles as a police cruiser in Bordentown, N.J. The township auctioned it a year ago for $230. Mr. Muhammad bought it in September for $250 at Trenton's Sure Shot Auto Sales, saying he needed it for his son, lot owner Christopher Okupski said.
Mr. Okupski said Mr. Muhammad insisted co-ownership be listed in the name of Nathaniel O. Osbourne, 26, of Camden, N.J., also a Jamaican immigrant. Police said Mr. Osbourne likely is not involved in the shootings, but authorities yesterday arrested him in Flint, Mich., as a material witness.
The car's New Jersey tags, NDA-21Z, obtained this past September 11, listed the Camden address of a carryout Caribbean restaurant.
The revelation that the tag number was caught on film by a Fairfax County red-light camera near Tysons Corner indicates the extent of the review of video evidence around the region.
A dark-colored Caprice, possibly burgundy, was the subject of a D.C. lookout circulated after the Oct. 3 slaying of Pascal Charlot, 72, near the border with Montgomery County where four others had died at the sniper's hands that morning.
Amid such postmortems on police checks of the car as far north as Baltimore, Chief Moose was reflective.
"We only wish we could have stopped this," the chief said, "to reduce the number of victims."


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