R By Shannon McCaffrey, Tony Pugh and Kristi Heim
OCKVILLE, Md. (KRT) – Authorities late Wednesday said they are seeking a former Army soldier and a juvenile believed to be his teenage stepson in connection with the sniper shootings that have left 10 dead in a three-week rampage in the Washington area.
A federal arrest warrant was issued for John Allen Muhammad, also known as John Allen Williams, for federal firearms charges, said Montgomery County, Md. Police Chief Charles Moose. Williams, a black male 6’1″ tall, weighing 180 lbs., is believed to be traveling with a juvenile identified in several media reports as John Lee Malvo, a 17-year-old Jamaican citizen.
“We believe Mr. Muhammad may have information material to our investigation,” Moose said. “He should be considered armed and dangerous.”
In yet another cryptic message to the sniper, Moose said, “We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.” Moose said the sniper had insisted that he broadcast precisely that message.
He cautioned against concluding that Muhammad is the sniper.
Muhammad served in the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis, near the Tacoma, Wash., home where federal agents Wednesday searched a backyard and dug up a large tree stump that may have served as a target for shooting practice.
The base, home to several special forces units, conducts sniper training.
Authorities also executed a warrant at a paramilitary training facility outside Marion, Ala., and FBI agents visited Bellingham High School, 90 miles north of Seattle, on Wednesday.
The apparent break in the case came after a day of fast-moving developments in which the manhunt for the sniper spread to the West Coast. Federal agents descended on a Tacoma, Wash., rental home with metal detectors.
Agents carrying chainsaws and using heavy construction equipment uprooted a large tree stump and took it away, apparently to search for ammunition or other ballistic evidence. They also performed a grid search of the back yard with metal detectors.
FBI spokeswoman Melissa Mallon said the property owner consented to the search but would not say why authorities were there.
Neighbors said they believed authorities were focusing on a prior tenant who rented the home. He moved out in early spring.
Neighbor Christopher Waters, 23, stationed at Fort Lewis, said in January he heard gunshots about every other night for at least two weeks. He said they sounded like high-powered gunshots from a military rifle. The police investigated but nothing came of it, Waters said.
Officials at Fort Lewis, a U.S. Army base said federal officials had asked for their help, leading to speculation that the home’s prior occupant may have been a Fort Lewis soldier.
The dramatic developments occurred at the end of a day in which the sniper’s death toll rose to 10 and leaders of the manhunt defended themselves against allegations that they’d made grave missteps in communicating with the killer.
“Everything possible is being done in this case,” said Special Agent Michael Bouchard of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “We’re all parents, and we’re certainly concerned about the safety of our kids.”
Citing unnamed law enforcement officials, two local newspapers reported that the sniper, in an angry letter to police seeking millions of dollars, wrote that he had tried to contact police six times but was “ignored.”
One official told The Washington Post that an FBI trainee didn’t realize an incoming tip-line call was from the sniper, and cut the conversation short. “Five people had to die” because of it, the sniper’s letter reportedly claimed.
According to several news reports, authorities spent so much time trying to collect forensic evidence from the letter, which was retrieved from Saturday night’s shooting site in Ashland, Va., that they missed a deadline the sniper had imposed.
The mistakes probably emboldened the shooter, said forensic scientist Brent Turvey, author of the book “Criminal Profiling.”
“If I’m the sniper, I’m thinking to myself the only way to communicate with these people is bodies,” Turvey said. In addition, “He feels he’s not going to get caught.”
Gary Bald, the top FBI special agent in the sniper investigation, did not address specific allegations in the media Wednesday, but acknowledged that the number of calls coming in to the tip hot line sometimes “will overtax the system.” According to the FBI’s Baltimore field office, the special sniper tip line has received more than 70,000 calls.
Bald denied that law enforcement agencies in the task force were not sharing information effectively.
“Frankly, I think this is one of the more remarkable investigations I’ve been involved in from the standpoint of a cooperation among a very, very large number of people that are dedicated (to) solving this case,” Bald said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the federal resources included 600 FBI personnel; 623 agents, inspectors and canine handlers from the ATF; three helicopters and flight teams from the Customs Service; 50 special agents from the Secret Service; unspecified numbers of Army surveillance planes from the Pentagon; agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshals Service.
Fleischer said there were no plans to federalize the probe, which is headed by the police department in Montgomery County, Md., where the shootings began Oct. 2.
President Bush said Wednesday that he was praying for an end to the killing spree.
“There is a ruthless person on the loose,” Bush continued. “I have ordered the full resources of the federal government to help local law enforcement officials in their efforts to capture this person.”
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose issued a special appeal Wednesday to illegal immigrants who may have witnessed the latest shooting, in Aspen Hill, Md.
Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar also offered reassurance, saying federal officials would not investigate the immigration status of witnesses who provide information in the sniper case. Rather, they would “look favorably” on granting special visa status to those who help authorities.
Federal officials who initiated deportation proceedings against two immigrants Monday after they were inadvertently caught up in the sniper dragnet in Richmond, Va., might have intimidated illegal immigrants.
Anxious students returned to school across the region Wednesday. They’d learned the night before of a chilling postscript in the sniper’s letter: “Your children are not safe anywhere at anytime.”
Incensing many parents, authorities had waited three days to make the threat public, which was in the letter left at the Ashland shooting.
The sniper’s 13 shootings have stretched over six counties and the District of Columbia. Three victims were critically injured.
Moose said Wednesday that ballistics evidence confirmed what police had suspected: Tuesday’s slaying of bus driver Conrad Johnson, a 35-year-old father of two, was the sniper’s work. That brought the gunman’s death toll in Montgomery County to six.
Some criminal justice experts questioned why the sniper task force was not releasing the shooter’s letter. They said that if it were made public, someone might recognize the author by his handwriting or writing style.
“It’s incomprehensible to me that they would not put this out there,” said Joseph McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, Calif. “Everything should be released unless it interferes with capturing the killer.”
Moose said there were no plans at present to publish the sniper’s whole letter.
“That doesn’t say that we won’t do that,” Moose said.
Also on Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said that if the sniper were not in custody by Election Day, Nov. 5, he might post National Guard troops at polling places.