Snipers caught, police say

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By Daniel Chang, Shannon McCaffrey and Martin Merzer

rOCKVILLE, Md. (KRT) – Police declared the Washington-area sniper murders solved Thursday. In custody was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and a teen-age companion who authorities say has been implicated in a deadly robbery. Police said a rifle found in their car matched the murder weapon.

Neither man had been charged in the killings as of Thursday evening, and their alleged motive remained unclear. But acquaintances said both men sometimes expressed anti-American sentiments, and whatever the motive, police believe the suspects shot 13 people – innocent men, women and a 13-year-old boy – from a distance and then ran. Ten of them died.

Police said a trail of tips and clues that stretched from the Washington, D.C., area to Alabama and Washington state led a federal SWAT team to a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. It was parked at a rest stop off Interstate 70 in Frederick County, Md., about 50 miles northwest of the nation’s capital.

Inside the car, police found John Allen Muhammad, 41, who changed his name from John Allen Williams when he converted to Islam, and John Lee Malvo, 17, a Jamaican native who apparently is not Muhammad’s stepson, despite reports that he is.

The two were asleep. Officers captured them without additional violence. It was 3:19 a.m.

A search of the Chevy Caprice produced a rifle that ballistics tests later concluded was the same weapon employed during the three-week reign of terror, police said. Officers also found a sighting scope and a tripod.

The car reportedly was modified so a shooter could lie on the back seat and fire out of the trunk. That, experts said, could explain why no shell casings were found at most of the shooting sites.

Ten people have been killed and three critically wounded since the snipings began Oct. 2. The hit-and-run attacks frightened millions of people in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and dominated the nation’s attention.

The victims were shot as they performed mundane activities. They shopped, they stood beside a bus, they cut grass or pumped grass, they walked out of a restaurant or into a school.

And now, authorities said, it was over.

“Tonight, people in the Washington metropolitan region are breathing a collective sigh of relief, hearing the news,” Doug Duncan, executive of Montgomery County, Md., said Thursday night.

Appearing in court for the first time late Thursday, Muhammad was ordered held without bail by federal Magistrate Beth Gesner in Baltimore.

He was led into the court with hands cuffed behind his back, then was uncuffed so he could sit. He wore a green prison jumpsui. He showed no emotion. He politely answered a series of questions posed by Gesner.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“No, ma’am” he said.

Muhammad was being held on a federal firearms charge related to his possession of the rifle in violation of a restraining order obtained in Tacoma by his second wife, Mildred Muhammad.

The sniper shootings were never mentioned in open court, while prosecutors work out jurisdictional issues involving the shootings.

After the proceedings his lawyer, public defender Jim Wyda, said: “Unfortunately, situations like this breed a great deal of speculation and potential for error.”

Many hours after the pair was seized, police realized that Muhammad had slipped through their fingers Oct. 8, before the final five victims were shot.

Baltimore police stopped him early that day outside a doughnut shop, where he was asleep at the wheel of his Caprice. After checking him for outstanding warrants and proper license and registration, officers allowed him to leave, according to Ragina Avarella, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore police.

The break in the case came when a call to police mentioned a fatal liquor-store heist in Montgomery, Ala. Evidence from that crime led, circuitously, to a home in Tacoma, Wash., and then to the blue Chevy in Maryland, police said.

One of Muhammad’s two ex-wives and several of his former military officers said Thursday that he had one serious blemish: “He had a short fuse,” said Donald Wilsdon, once Muhammad’s platoon sergeant.

“He was a very nice guy, an all-American kind of guy … but he seemed to have some problems with authority,” said Rafael Miranda, 41, of New Orleans, Muhammad’s former detachment commander in the Louisiana National Guard. “He would just get mad at silly little things and go into a rage. He had an anger management problem.”

One of Muhammad’s former wives, Mildred Williams, said in court documents that he “threatened to kill me” when she was in Tacoma General Hospital in May 2000. Their marriage was unraveling at the time.

“I am in fear for my life,” she wrote in a request for a restraining order. “He has made threats to destroy me. I am frightened for my children’s safety.”

She told hospital security officers that Muhammad “can make a weapon out of anything” and was “skilled in hand-to-hand fighting.”

By Thursday evening, Muhammad and Malvo had not been formally charged with the crimes, but authorities said they were certain they had their men. Prosecutors were scheduled to meet Friday to discuss charges and work out jurisdictional and other issues.

A search of the Chevy Caprice produced a rifle that used the same type of .223-caliber ammunition as the weapon that was used in the shootings, police said. Officers also found a sighting scope and a tripod. Ballistics tests were under way.

The rifle found was a Bushmaster semiautomatic, according to the arrest warrant. It uses a 10-round magazine and has a 16-inch barrel. It is considered highly accurate to a range of 50 yards. It sells for about $850. It is made by a company called Bushmaster Firearms.

Allen Faraday, vice president of the Maine-based company, said investigators provided the company with the rifle’s serial number. He said that rifle was shipped in June to a distributor in the Tacoma area, where Muhammad and Malvo lived for some time.

“This is a favorite with police departments because it’s easy to handle,” Faraday said.

Ten people have been killed and three critically wounded since the snipings began Oct. 2. The hit-and-run attacks frightened millions of people in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and dominated the nation’s attention.

The victims were shot as they performed mundane activities. They shopped; they stood beside a bus; they cut grass or pumped gas; they walked out of a restaurant or into a school.

And now, police said, the three-week reign of terror was over.

“There’s a strong feeling these people are related to the sniper shootings,” said Douglas Gansler, state’s attorney in Maryland’s Montgomery County, where the sniper task force is based.

Most residents expressed a measure of relief, though some remained wary.

“There’s more people than one or two,” said James Wilburn, 70, as he helped customers load bags into their cars at a Magruder’s Grocery store in Rockville. “Those people couldn’t do that all so fast and travel from state to state.”

But police said they apparently did, though some investigators were looking into the possibility that others might have helped, possibly unknowingly.

As for widespread reports that the assailants might have traveled in a white van or white truck, officers said those tips apparently had been wrong.

Officials said they had found nothing that linked the suspects to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Former neighbors, however, said both men had uttered anti-American sentiments and expressed sympathy for the Sept. 11 terrorists.

The car seized early Thursday carried license plates registered to Muhammad at an address in Camden, N.J. The address turned out to be a restaurant and bar called The Caribbean, owned by a Jamaican native who said he barely knew Muhammad.

Records show that the car registration was filed Sept. 11, the one-year anniversary of the terrorist strikes. Ed Bonnett, who has operated the local Division of Motor Vehicles agency for eight years, said the South Camden office had a bomb scare that day, within an hour after Muhammad had left.

A man who lives near the Caribbean restaurant said he saw a blue Caprice parked in front of his home when he arrived home from work “three or four days ago.”

Kurtis Adams, 47, said he asked the driver to move the car. The man complied. Now, Adams said, he realizes that it was Muhammad. He was unnerved when he saw Muhammad’s face on television Wednesday night.

“He seemed like a nice guy, very polite,” Adams said. “I just asked him to move and he did.”

Several former acquaintances said Muhammad changed his name from John Allen Williams after converting to Islam, though the year of that conversion was not clear.

He was stationed at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, in the 1980s, served in the Gulf War and later was stationed at Fort Ord, Calif.

He joined the Army on Nov. 6, 1985, and was discharged on April 26, 1994. Before the Army, he was in the Louisiana National Guard; after the Army, he briefly served with the Oregon National Guard. His highest rank was sergeant.

Muhammad helped provide security for Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s “Million Man March” in Washington, D.C., in 1995, according to a former neighbor in Tacoma. Nation of Islam officials in Chicago declined to comment.

Military records did not indicate that Muhammad was trained as a sniper. When it came to his marksmanship, Miranda, Muhammad’s former commander in the Louisiana National Guard, was unimpressed.

“I don’t remember him being anything special,” he said.

Still, that skill can be developed later in life, and former neighbors in Tacoma said Muhammad and Malvo often fired gunshots late at night, as recently as last month.

The gunfire sounded like the high-velocity rounds that emerge from .223-caliber and certain other rifles, the Seattle Times reported, and came in bursts of two or three shots.

On Wednesday, federal agents conducted an exacting search of the pair’s home on South Proctor Street in Tacoma. They used metal detectors that probed for bullet casings and chain saws that removed a tree stump that investigators believe was used for target practice.

Only sketchy details emerged Thursday about Muhammad and Malvo, and some of the information was contradictory.

One report said Muhammad converted to Islam recently, another that he became a Muslim years ago, about the same time he joined the Army.

He was described as 6 feet tall and slender. He liked to keep his hair cropped short, military style. He was said to have been married and divorced twice. He has four children. He tended to wander around the country, according to ex-wives and their friends.

Malvo attended Bellingham High School, 90 miles north of Seattle, last year.

Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll said the youth came to their attention last December because he arrived at the school without transcripts or other papers. Some reports said Malvo was born in Jamaica; others that he merely lived there for some time.

Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson said FBI agents arrived in town Wednesday and sought information about Malvo and Muhammad. He said both left the area about nine months ago, apparently moving to Tacoma.

The key break in the case, according to officials of the sniper task force, came during the weekend with a call to a tip line. The caller apparently claimed credit for the shootings and linked them to a Sept. 21 liquor store robbery in Montgomery, Ala.

Two women were shot during that robbery and one of them died. Officials said Malvo’s fingerprint was found at the scene, and that eventually led to Tacoma. After searching the pair’s house in that Pacific Northwest city, authorities issued a nationwide alert Wednesday night for the Caprice.

At 1 a.m. Thursday, a motorist and an attendant spotted the car at the rest stop near Frederick, Md.

By the end of the day, police said the case essentially was solved.

Legal experts said authorities would have several options as they began preparing for a criminal case stretching across jurisdictional lines in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

“I think what they would do is pick the jurisdiction where most of the incidents occurred” for trial, said Washington, D.C., lawyer Sam Dash, a former district attorney in Philadelphia who later served as chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee.

Then, he said, other jurisdictions will get their turn.

Dash said the suspects could be held without bond on federal firearms charges while state authorities, working with the FBI, continued investigations to build a murder case.

Robert Cottrol, a professor at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., said an outcry for the death penalty could encourage authorities to focus prosecution in the jurisdiction most likely to invoke capital punishment.

Maryland and Virginia both permit the death penalty, he said, but Virginia has shown a greater tendency to use it. The District of Columbia does not have a death penalty statute.

Still, one thing united authorities in all jurisdictions Thursday night: a sense that it was over.

At Montgomery County Police Headquarters in Rockville, Capt. Nancy Demme, who has served as a spokeswoman, appeared relaxed for the first time in three weeks.

Beneath her police uniform, she still wore a bulletproof vest, but she smiled several times. At the same time, though, the stress and horror of the situation – the toll it took on police and everyone else in the region – remained evident.

At one point, a reporter asked if the suspects would be brought to Rockville police headquarters, the command center for the multi-agency task force investigating the shootings.

Said Demme: “We wouldn’t do that to them.”