Gun found in suspects' car matched to sniper shootings
One of the men arrested last night in connection with the sniper shootings that have taken 10 lives in the Washington, D.C. area appeared in court today and was ordered held, and a gun found in the suspects' car has been linked to 11 of the 13 shootings.
John Allen Muhammad, 41, — arrested with John Lee Malvo, 17 — appeared in court, and was ordered held. Neither has been charged with the shootings, but law-enforcement sources told The Associated Press that investigators were certain they had cracked the case.
A gun found in the suspects’ car — a Bushmaster rifle — had been linked by ballistics to 11 of the 13 shootings, said Michael Bouchard, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Muhammad, a former Fort Lewis soldier, and the teenager were arrested early today near Middletown in Frederick County, Md. Muhammad and Malvo were taken into custody at a rest stop on Interstate 70 about 50 miles northwest of the nation’s capital.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler said state and federal prosecutors would meet Friday morning to discuss charges against Muhammad and Malvo.
One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a gun found in the suspects’ car appeared to use .223-caliber bullets — the fatal calling card in the attacks that began Oct. 2 with the killing of James D. Martin in a grocery store parking lot in Wheaton, Md.
The weapon found in the Chevrolet Caprice was a Bushmaster rifle, according to a law enforcement source. The AR-15 is the civilian form of the M-16 military assault rifle. As a soldier, Muhammad received a Marksmanship Badge with expert rating — the highest of three ratings — in use of the M-16, according to Army records. Police also found a scope and tripod in the car, the official said.
The arrests came after a day in which federal agents tore up the yard at the Tacoma house where Muhammad had stayed earlier this year. Agents also searched a high school in Bellingham for Malvo’s student records, and reportedly were looking for samples of his handwriting.
The two were last known to be living in Clinton, Md., a Washington suburb, law-enforcement sources said. Muhammad, a Muslim convert who changed his name from John Allen Williams last year, lived in Tacoma from 1994 until 2000 and had visited there since. He was stationed at Fort Lewis in the 1980s, served in the Gulf War and was later stationed at Fort Ord, Calif.
Malvo, who authorities said is a citizen of Jamaica, attended Bellingham High last year.
Late last night, Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles Moose, who is leading the sniper investigation, said a federal arrest warrant on an unrelated firearms charge had been issued for Muhammad. The warrant was issued last night in U.S. District Court in Seattle, said John McKay, the U.S. attorney in Western Washington. McKay said he couldn’t discuss details because a criminal complaint attached to the warrant was sealed.
Moose had said Muhammad and Malvo should be considered armed and dangerous, but had cautioned, “Do not assume from this John Williams is involved in any of the shootings we are investigating.”
Several federal sources said Muhammad and Malvo may have been motivated by anti-American sentiments in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Both were known to speak sympathetically about the men who attacked the United States, the sources said.
But neither man was believed to be associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network, sources said.
Authorities had issued an alert for a blue or burgundy 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey tags and a 1989 white Chevrolet Celebrity with Maryland plates. Earlier this month, police said they were looking for a burgundy Caprice seen near a fatal Oct. 3 shooting by the sniper.
The link to the two Washington men came in part from a call from the suspected sniper himself. In the call, the sniper told investigators to look into an incident in Montgomery, Ala., a federal law-enforcement official said.
After checking shootings in Montgomery, police discovered a shooting in which one woman was killed and another wounded near a liquor store Sept. 21. Ammunition from a .223-caliber weapon was used, the official said. That was the same type of weapon the sniper used.
A fingerprint lifted from a piece of paper found at the Alabama shooting scene was traced to Malvo, the official said. Police then traced Malvo to a Tacoma house where he had been living with Muhammad.
Earlier yesterday, federal agents arrived at a fourplex in the 3300 block of South Proctor Street in Tacoma, carrying chain saws and calling in heavy construction equipment.
Yesterday’s search recovered at least one possible bullet fragment from a tree stump that agents removed from the Tacoma property, a law-enforcement source told The Washington Post.
“We recovered evidence of potential value,” said a federal official. “But the forensics people are going to have to look at it to see what it means.”
Dean Resop, who lives a block away, said he was there when agents arrived yesterday morning.
“They just moseyed up and started looking around like they owned the place,” he said.
“There’s been quite a few tenants been in and out of there,” said Resop, who has lived in the area seven years. “Makes you want to watch your neighbors closer.”
The task force in Maryland had received a tip from a man in Tacoma, a friend of Muhammad’s and Malvo’s, who said he “had suspicions” about the pair, a source said.
Both Muhammad and Malvo were at the Tacoma house within the past three months, a federal source said. The tipster described the pair as “transients” or “nomads,” who sometimes took target practice at the property, according to the source, even though it is in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood near Tacoma Mall.
While there, according to the tipster, the two fired a .223-caliber rifle similar to that used in the snipings. Chris Waters, who lives across the street from the house, said he often heard gunshots at night last January. The gunfire sounded like high-velocity rounds and would come two to three at a time, Waters said. But it wasn’t automatic fire, said Waters, 23, an Army private first class.
Brian Jones, 37, who has lived in nearby condos for eight years, also recalled hearing shots fairly regularly, and as recently as September. “It was three shots in a row — boom, boom, boom,” said Jones. “In Tacoma, you hear shots all the time. You don’t think much of it.”
Interviews with law-enforcement sources, former wives and acquaintances created an emerging portrait of Muhammad: A Muslim convert and former Fort Lewis soldier sympathetic to Islamic terrorists. A man who has gone through at least two wives, with bitter custody battles over his children. A neighbor who was friendly but a control freak who kidnapped his own children.
Classmates and officials at Bellingham High School said Malvo was an unremarkable but friendly young man who hadn’t been at school there for nearly a year.
Muhammad is a 6-foot-tall, slender man who wears his pants pulled up tight and keeps his hair cropped very short, acquaintances said. He is the father of four children, including a grown son, and has spent much of his life moving about the country, said an ex-wife and close friends of his ex-wives.
Although Muhammad served in the Army for many years, he was never trained as a sniper, records show. He apparently has no felony record in Washington state, according to court records.
He converted to Islam many years ago, after his first divorce, about the same time he joined the Army, said Carol Williams, his first wife and the mother of his first son. The couple divorced 17 years ago.
Williams said she last saw her ex-husband in early August, for the first time in eight years. They both were in Baton Rouge, La., where she lives and he was visiting his brother, Edward Williams, who is married to her sister.
Williams also said Muhammad 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.”
“After he changed his religion, he called and told me what not to feed my child,” she recounted. “I told him as long as he (their son) lived with me, it was up to me.”
She wasn’t sure where he was living most recently or what he was doing.
“I know when he left here he moved to Tacoma,” she said. “From Tacoma to where, I don’t know.” When their son was in middle school, he visited his father in Tacoma. Carol Williams said she had to fight a legal battle to get him back.
But Muhammad was not a violent man, Williams said. The two met when they were both young. She was living at home with her mother, Muhammad had a car and the two had a three-month courtship before marrying. Muhammad would call her son every couple of years, she said, but aside from that had little contact. Muhammad married another woman, Mildred Green. They had three children and divorced in 2000 in Pierce County. Williams said Green called her a couple of years ago to tell her that Muhammad had kidnapped their children and to ask for help in getting them back.
“I know she called me and asked me if I would tell her if I heard anything,” Williams said. “I was really wanting to help her.”
Elaina Whitlock, 38, and her son Anthony, lived near the family for six years on South Ainsworth Avenue in Tacoma. Whitlock recalled that the couple had a bitter divorce and custody battle. After the divorce, he was granted weekend visitations, but at one point left with the couple’s children.
“Things were going OK with visitations and no one suspected he would take off with them, but then he couldn’t have her and he knew it would hurt her if he took the children,” said Whitlock. “Her life was her children.”
Whitlock said Green was reunited with the children about a year and a half ago.
Brenda Geyer lived across the street from the family for several years.
“I didn’t talk to him that much,” Geyer said. “I talked to Mildred more. They were a strong Muslim family and he was the definite head of the household — the authority figure.”
Geyer said that when she saw Muhammad’s photo on television last night, she immediately recognized their former neighbor.
“I am shaking inside,” Geyer said. “I feel weird, scary. How could it possibly touch this close to me?”
Leo Dudley, a friend who lived a block from Muhammad in south Tacoma, said Muhammad once provided security in Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March.
Muhammad was in excellent shape and knew karate, said Dudley, himself an ex-Marine.
“Any time he shook your hand, he would crush it,” said Dudley. “He was just country. He was from down South, and the military brought him up here.”
Less is known about John Malvo, who is reportedly Muhammad’s stepson.
Last year’s Bellingham High School yearbook listed a junior named Lee Malvo as unavailable for a yearbook photo.
A woman whose son is a junior there said Malvo attended classes there until last December.
“My son said he was a nice kid,’’ she said.
Mayor Mark Asmundson said he was told by investigators that Muhammad and Malvo stayed in Bellingham only for a few months and that, as far as city officials know, they have been gone for at least nine months.
Almost obscured by the news of the hunt for Muhammad and Malvo yesterday was the fact that the 10th death was positively linked to the sniper. Moose said ballistics evidence confirmed what police had suspected: Tuesday’s slaying of bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35 and a father of two, was the sniper’s work.
Also yesterday, leaders of the manhunt defended themselves against allegations that they’d made grave missteps in communicating with the killer.
“Everything possible is being done on 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 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 yesterday, but acknowledged that the number of calls coming in to the tip hotline sometimes “will overtax the system.”
According to the FBI’s Baltimore field office, the special sniper tip line had received more than 70,000 calls.
Times staff reporters Ian Ith, Mike Carter, Christine Clarridge, David Heath, J.J. Jensen, Susan Kelleher, Steve Miletich, Cheryl Morningstar, Cheryl Phillips, Ray Rivera, Ralph Thomas, Christine Willmsen, Duff Wilson, Miyoko Wolf, Sarah Anne Wright, Phillip Buffington, Janet Burkitt, Justin Mayo and The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report.