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Friday, October 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Allen Muhammad: How decorated Gulf War veteran became subject of manhunt

TACOMA — Long before a cat-and-mouse game with police that rattled the nation's capital, John Allen Muhammad was terrifying his second wife.

On March 2000, she pleaded with a Pierce County judge to order her husband to stay away from her and their children.

"I am afraid of John," she wrote. "He was a demolition expert in the military. He is behaving very, very irrational. Whenever he does talk to me, he always says that he's going to destroy my life."

Mildred Muhammad, now living in Maryland, survived. But 10 unarmed citizens in the Washington, D.C., area are dead and three seriously injured from high-powered shots from a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle. Authorities blame the crimes on Muhammad — who earned an "expert" rating, the Army's highest, with an M-16 rifle — and an accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 17.

If Muhammad is the sniper, as police now insist, how did a 8-1/2-year veteran, described by some as a charming neighbor and devout Muslim, end up a heartless, precision killer who confounds FBI psychological profiling?

Dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of court documents paint a familiar criminal type: a troubled, angry man fascinated with powerful guns and at loose ends, bouncing from address to address across the country, spewing violence and abuse in his wake.

The portrait of Muhammad, formerly John Allen Williams, starts with his birth on New Year's Eve, 1960, in New Orleans. He had an older brother, Edward. He barely knew his father, who soon abandoned the family. His mother died and he was raised by an aunt, according to CNN.

He struggled in school because of learning disabilities. He excelled in track and tennis in high school and graduated in 1978, CNN reported. He soon joined the Louisiana Army National Guard.

There he was put through a boot camp, forging a lifelong, almost obsessive fitness habit that packed hard muscle on a lean, 180-pound, 6-foot-1 frame. He also took advanced engineer training and learned to fire a military rifle.

In 1981, he married Carol Kaglear, also 20, in Baton Rouge, La. In an exclusive interview, she told The Seattle Times they had a short courtship. "I was young and we married three months after we met," she said. "He had a car and out here, you can't go many places. My mother was real strict."

They would have a son, Lindberg, 10 months later. It was a troubled marriage. He said in court records she had an eating disorder, didn't change urine-soaked bedsheets for her son and punished him too harshly. His wife said he was often gone and had an affair with Mildred Green, the woman he later married. Carol and John Williams separated in November 1985 and divorced in 1988.

Carol said he never hit her. That he is suspected of being a killer, she said, "is so scary — you wouldn't want to think that of anybody."

John enlisted in the Army the day after he and Carol separated.

He was assigned to the 15th Engineer Battalion at the Fort Lewis Army base south of Tacoma as a combat engineer. He also was qualified as a metal worker and a water-truck driver.

In 1991, he served in the Gulf War as a combat engineer and received the Kuwait Liberation Medal, given to soldiers who served at least one day or more in operations Desert Storm or Desert Shield.

But his career was rocky. He was court-martialed twice while serving with the Louisiana National Guard. In a 1983 case, Muhammad was convicted of striking a sergeant in the head. He was fined $100 and sentenced to seven days in the stockade, but the sentence was suspended.

He was discharged from Fort Lewis on April 26, 1994, and immediately joined the Oregon National Guard, from which he was honorably discharged a year later.

While at Fort Lewis, he married Mildred Green, whom he'd known from Baton Rouge. She was a year older, 28. "He was the brawn, and she was the brains," their friend, Leo Dudley, said.

They had a son, John Jr., then Muhammad was transferred to Germany.

They had two daughters in the next two years and settled into a small house on South Ainsworth Avenue in Tacoma. Muhammad made money fixing cars with his own company, "Express Car/Truck Mechanic." Its motto: "We Come To Your Home Or Office."

Mildred's mother lived with the family for several years in a crowded three-bedroom house, friends said.

Lindberg, Muhammad's son from his first marriage, came to visit in Tacoma in July 1995. He was 12. Though it was only the second time he'd seen his son, Muhammad filed a court motion to gain sole custody, alleging abuse by his ex-wife.

Carol Williams fought back in court. She even got Muhammad's brother Edward to support her. He told the court: "I love my brother very much and always will. But John is wrong and I told him he is wrong for the thing he is doing."

Muhammad intimidated his children, friends said. Felix Strozier taught karate to Muhammad's two sons. The younger boy, "Little John," could count in Japanese and recite his martial-arts creeds.

"But John thought Little John shouldn't make any mistakes," Strozier said. "And if he did, he'd get disciplined for it. He only spanked John one time in front of me, but you could see it in Little John's eyes that he was terrified."

Muhammad suggested Strozier open a karate school and offered to invest in it. The Strozier and Muhammad Karate Team was formed in 1995. It folded in 1998.

Yesterday, Strozier said of his former business partner: "He's a confused person. And this tragedy is just too close to home.''

In the mid-1990s, the Muhammads were active in a Nation of Islam temple in Seattle's Central Area; it has since closed.

Muhammad told a friend that he provided security at the huge Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in 1995.

The march was described as "a day of atonement and reconciliation" and a call for black men to take responsibility for their lives, families and communities.

Some neighbors described a good family man. Muhammad videotaped his son's football team and cheered it on. Little John had asthma but was a running back, "strong, like his father," said Leo Dudley, who was the team's coach.

Dudley cleaned homes; Muhammad fixed cars. They lived a block apart and traded services.

Dudley said that he cleaned everywhere in the Muhammad home and never saw a gun.

But Muhammad was not faithful. He had many affairs, according to friends in whom his wife confided. He was "a charmer," Mildred said of her ex-husband. She filed for divorce two days before John's 38th birthday, on Dec. 29, 1999. Their children were a son, 9, and two daughters, 7 and 6. Mildred eventually filed for a protection order. In a Feb. 8, 2000, petition to the court, she wrote: "John came over at 7:00 a.m. to inform me he had tapped the phone lines. He said the information he had would destroy me. He started threatening me and I became very unsafe."

The next day, she wrote, "John tried to enter the home to see our son because he was sick. I told him he could not see him because he was asleep. He pushed his way into the house and pushed me out of the way. I ran in the back and called 911 for the police to come they came and said there was nothing they could do w/o a restraining order."

When Muhammad missed a hearing, the court entered a finding of domestic violence and ordered him to stay away from his ex-wife and kids. He wasn't allowed to have guns.

Ten days later, on March 27, 2000, John picked up his kids.

Mildred wouldn't see them or hear from them again for 18 months.

"He took the kids, cleaned out the bank account, took the car and just left her dry," Dudley said.

Muhammad has claimed he took the children to Antigua with Mildred's permission.

Mildred, distraught at the children's abduction, turned to neighbors and her mosque for help. She needed money just to pay the rent and telephone bill so her children could find her at home. Friends Barbara Dudley and Brenda Geyer said Mildred thought the mosque turned its back on her.

"She was frantic," said Geyer, who lives across the street. "She tried everything to get her kids back."

Mildred was hospitalized briefly. The phone rang in her room at Tacoma General Hospital. It was Muhammad. But when she told him she didn't want to talk about anything but seeing the children, according to a police report, he hung up, then called her mother and threatened her.

"It was also learned the suspect owned no weapons, but has access to them," the police report said. "He also served in the U.S. Army as a Demolitions/Weapons expert for 15 years and 'can make a weapon out of anything.' It was also stated he is skilled in hand to hand fighting."

"In late June 2000," he wrote, "I returned with the children to Tacoma because Antigua seemed pretty backward — no internet or other technological advances."

He ended up in Bellingham and enrolled his two girls in school, using fictitious names and fictitious birthdates.

Muhammad and the three children eventually moved into a shelter, the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham. Lee Boyd Malvo, who for a time went by the name John Lee Malvo, also lived there. Malvo, now 17, from Jamaica, was the second person arrested yesterday.

Bellingham real-estate agent Greg Grant said Muhammad used to do odd jobs at a Sumas apartment complex Grant owns. During the summer of 2001, Grant said he used to pick up Muhammad from the mission almost every weekend.

"He was not only personable, but an excellent worker, probably the best I'd ever seen," Grant said.

He said Muhammad appeared well-educated and friendly to people at the complex. Occasionally, Muhammad brought his middle-school-age son with him.

"The interaction between father and son was always what I considered to be very loving," he said.

Muhammad was caught when he applied for state aid in August 2001. A state fraud investigator cross-checked his name with a report of missing children. The agent reported him to the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office.

Detective Tom McCarthy pulled the children out of school, fed them pizza, took them to Child Protective Services, and served papers on Muhammad.

"He was upset but polite and listened," McCarthy wrote in a sheriff's report marked confidential. "He explained that Mildred told him to raise the children so this is all a surprise to him."

It was then that his wife turned the tables. Reunited with the children on Sept. 4, 2001, she took them into hiding.

By all reports, Muhammad has not seen his three children since then.

Muhammad started filing court motions to get his children back last fall. He lost every one.

Muhammad began spending more time with Malvo. They settled into a "drill sergeant, recruit-type" relationship, said a federal law-enforcement source. Muhammad used drill-sergeant methods to manipulate the boy. The source said this dynamic might be exploited by a defense attorney if Malvo were to stand trial.

One key to understanding Muhammad is revealed through his friends. They apparently were alarmed by his behavior. Much as the Unabomber was betrayed by his own brother, Muhammad was informed on by an Army buddy and longtime friend, Robert Holmes, a 6-foot-4 car mechanic and former Golden Glove boxer.

Holmes knew Muhammad for years, according to divorce court records. Holmes let Muhammad stay at his home in the 3300 block of Proctor Street in Tacoma. That visit cost him his freedom and may provide the evidence prosecutors need to build a successful murder case.

Three times in the past six months, Muhammad visited Holmes with weapons, including a .223-caliber rifle that was the same type as used in the D.C.-area shootings. They fired at a tree trunk in the back yard, neighbors reported.

One time, Holmes told agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Muhammad said he was going to "zero" the rifle — align the scope to the barrel to make it accurate.

At one visit, Muhammad took Holmes in confidence, telling him he wanted to make a silencer. Then, Holmes said, he made a chilling remark, "Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?"

Holmes told all of this to ATF agents last week. He is in line to get some of the $500,000 reward.

Muhammad also tried to buy a big car from one of Holmes' friends, Todd Paulson. "He was around here at least three times trying to buy my 1965 Lincoln Continental," Paulson said.

Muhammad liked that the car had "suicide doors" — hinged at the back.

But the suspected sniper could not afford the price, $3,500. Instead he bought a Chevrolet Caprice in New Jersey for $250 from Sure Shot Auto Sales.

Seattle Times staff reporters Nancy Bartley, Janet Burkitt, Mike Carter, Susan Kelleher, Steve Miletich, Cheryl Phillips, Ray Rivera, Christine Willmsen and Duff Wilson contributed to this report.

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