Justice Dept. moves closer to taking over sniper prosecution

W By Ralph Vartabedian and Mark Fineman

wASHINGTON – The Justice Department moved closer Tuesday to taking over the prosecution of the Washington sniper case, filing a complaint in federal court in Maryland that alleges John Allen Muhammad was responsible for the shooting rampage that terrorized the Washington area this month.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, calling the shootings atrocities, said he has not yet decided whether federal or state prosecutors would conduct the first trial of Muhammad, 41. But he said he expects swift justice and wants available the most serious penalties – a reference to the death sentence.

The complaint and an accompanying federal affidavit contain important new details about the shootings, but the documents did not name Muhammad’s alleged partner, Lee Boyd Malvo, 17. However, it is believed that Malvo is also facing federal charges under sealed proceedings that apply to minors in the federal court system.

The affidavit noted that when police finally caught up with Muhammad and Malvo at a Maryland freeway rest stop on Oct. 24, Muhammad had several phony drivers licenses and a single brown cotton glove stuck in a hole in the car trunk that matched a glove recovered at a shooting scene in Silver Spring, Md. two days earlier.

Among other items the pair carried was a Sony laptop computer, a pair of two-way radios, various books, a global positioning system, bolt cutters, two shooting mittens, a Bushmaster rifle and a gallon jug of yellow liquid that was not further described, according to the affidavit.

Evidence continued to grow Tuesday that Muhammad and Malvo engaged in crimes across the country, including a credit card theft in Arizona that was detailed in the federal affidavit and two possible shootings in Tacoma, Wash., last year. In addition to the murders in and around the nation’s capital, the pair are charged with killing a liquor store clerk and wounding another in Alabama on Sept. 21.

In conversations with others, Muhammad referred to Malvo as a sniper as early as six months before the Washington area shootings, according to the affidavit.

The federal complaint names six victims gunned down in Maryland and one in Washington, but does not mention the Virginia shootings. A Justice Department official said including the five Virginia shootings would risk running afoul of Virginia’s double jeopardy protections.

The complaint against Muhammad was filed in federal court in Greenbelt, Md., and alleges he violated the 47-year-old U.S. Hobbs Act, a federal statute that was originally intended to fight union corruption.

The Hobbs violations allege the pair conspired to commit offenses against the United States. By adding allegations that they used threats of extortion and physical violence, federal prosecutors can seek the death penalty against Muhammad, Justice Department officials said.

Under federal law, the death penalty does not apply to minors and minors cannot be tried as adults. Malvo is already under indictment for murder in Virginia, which does permit the execution of minors.

The Justice Department has 10 days from the filing of a complaint to indict a suspect, and a decision about where to conduct a trial will almost certainly be made by then. But that issue could be resolved much sooner, as early as this week, according to Justice Department officials. Ashcroft said the department is trying to cooperate with Maryland and Virginia, though political squabbles are apparent.

The affidavit said the murders are related, noting that shots were all taken at a distance and that ballistic tests showed that all but three bullets had been matched to the same weapon. Ballistics evidence from the first three shootings did not permit comparison, it said.

Much of the affidavit covers the necessary legal ground to prove violations of the Hobbs Act, including showing that the shooting occurred at businesses involved in interstate commerce, that the pair crossed state lines in committing the crimes and that they made an extortion attempt. The affidavit notes that Muhammad demanded $10 million be paid to a stolen Visa Platinum card issued by the Bank of America. It also contained threats to kill other individuals.

The affidavit confirms many other previously reported details about the crimes, including the discovery of letters at shooting sites, Tarot cards and telephone calls by the suspects to police. It also mentions for the first time that the pair used a stolen credit card from Ariz. to purchase gasoline in Tacoma on April 9, 2002, the first indication that Muhammad had returned to Tacoma after leaving it earlier this year.

Indeed, Muhammad and Malvo took center stage Tuesday in Tacoma as suspects in another slaying, a brutal Feb. 16 murder that had baffled local detective.

A 21-year-old single mother, Keenya Cook, was shot in the face as she opened the front door of her aunt’s house, most likely, authorities said, to a visitor she knew.

When Cook’s aunt, Isa Nichols, returned from shopping that day, she found Cook dead in the doorway and Cook’s unharmed baby lying on a diaper-changing table nearby.

Tacoma police concluded at the time that Cook knew her killer because there were no signs of forced entry. But they had no suspects until Muhammad and Malvo were arrested and their faces broadcast on nationwide television.

Tacoma Police Chief David A. Brame said at a news conference late Monday that a Tacoma gun hobbyist he declined to name had befriended and housed Muhammad and Malvo for several months this year. The gun owner came forward after the two men were charged in the sniper rampage in Washington D.C.

Brame said the man voluntarily turned over to local police a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and a .44 magnum revolver that he said he had loaned to Muhammad on occasion during the first six months of this year.

Ballistics tests showed the .45 automatic was the weapon that killed Cook, according to the affidavit.

Nichols family members then explained that Muhammad knew Cook’s aunt, Mrs. Nichols, who worked as a bookkeeper at Muhammad’s Tacoma truck and car repair shop before it went out of business. They also said Nichols had befriended Muhammad’s second wife, Mildred, and even sided with her during the couple’s bitter custody battle over their three children.

Several family members now suspect Cook was killed out of revenge.

Malcolm Nichols, Cook’s uncle, said in an interview that Muhammad and his wife had been guests at his Tacoma home for barbecues, dominoes and card parties. The problems started after Muhammad and wife separated and the Nichols family assisted the FBI in locating the couple’s children, who were with Muhammad, Nichols said.

Other ballistics tests on the .44-caliber magnum showed that it was used in a separate shooting several months later at Tacoma’s Temple Beth El synagogue, according to Chief Brame.

No one was hurt in the shooting the first weekend last May, which left a bullet lodged in the Ark that contains the Torah, Judaism’s sacred writings. Rabbi Mark Glickman dismissed the shooting as random vandalism at the time. But, after Muhammad and Malvo were linked to Tacoma, he asked local police to reinvestigate.