ST. JOHN'S, Antigua - Authorities here launched an investigation yesterday into the activities of the two suspects in the sniper shootings while they lived here and whether a prolific passport-forgery business financed their odyssey across America to the Washington suburbs.
Officials on the island and in the United States believe John Allen Muhammad, 41, one of the two men held in the shootings, may have been engaged in a lucrative document-forgery business while living in Antigua in 2000 and last year.
Yesterday, island authorities created a four-member panel to report by Thursday on the activities of Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the 17-year-old whom he apparently met in Antigua and who is also charged in 13 shootings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
The panel of two lawyers, a retired police officer and a Catholic priest is dwarfed by the huge criminal review involving hundreds of investigators under way in the United States.
But island authorities acknowledge the inquiry's findings could be crucial in answering lingering questions: Why did the two grow so close on the island? How did Muhammad, whose businesses failed and who lived in a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wash., pay for trips to the Caribbean and around the country? How did the pair finance their fateful journey to Maryland and Virginia?
"I want to find out if any of their activities here would have anything at all to do with their activities in the U.S. and the sniper attacks," said Gertel Thom, attorney general of Antigua and Barbuda.
The 14-mile-long island of Antigua, where stray goats and cows wander the secondary roads, was the likely site where Boyd, a Jamaican who moved to Antigua with his mother, met Muhammad, who arrived on the island about April 2000.
It is unclear what brought Muhammad to the island in 2000 with his three children, whom he had abducted from his former wife. But Antigua residents and officials believe that he became involved in passport forgery, which islanders say can net practitioners $1,500 per set of forged papers.
Authorities confirmed yesterday that the documents Muhammad used to obtain his Antiguan passport, issued July 4, 2000, were forgeries, said Lt. Col. Clyde Walker, the island's chief immigration officer.
He substituted - and misspelled - the name of an Antiguan woman, Eva Ferris, for that of his real mother, Merdie Holliday, an American, said Walker. The birth certificate Muhammad submitted for his supposed mother would have made her 39 at his birth, while the birth certificate he provided for himself listed her age as 31.
"He's smart, but he wasn't smart enough in math. So it's definitely a fraud," Walker said.
Records show that Muhammad also used false names for his three children when arriving in 2000, and officials said he may have used as many as 27 aliases - including Thompson Lee, Thomas Lee Allen and Russel Dwight - on the island.
Meanwhile, officials in Miami say inspectors stopped Muhammad at the Miami airport on April 14 of last year because they believed he was trying to smuggle in two Jamaican women with false documents. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials have said they deported the women and reported Muhammad to the Miami U.S. attorney's office.
Jacqueline Becerra, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said yesterday that there is no record of that referral - perhaps because officials decided there wasn't enough evidence to work with.
In Antigua, officials prepared to examine thousands of entry cards filled out by island visitors in recent years, looking for aliases that may have been used by Muhammad, Malvo or Malvo's mother, Una James.
Officials are also examining all passports issued while Muhammad was on the island to determine which may have been forgeries for his alleged clients. The island radio station was full of tips yesterday about forgeries Muhammad may have created.
The island, which usually would be swept up in celebrating the 21st anniversary of its independence, was abuzz with the discovery that Muhammad may have exploited Antigua's notoriously lax bureaucrats. Not long ago, it was revealed that dozens of Chinese had come through the island to secure Antiguan passports.
"It is bad enough that Antigua has been associated with the suspected sniper," said Prime Minister Lester Bird. "It's now very important that we ensure that our system for granting passports is as secure as possible."
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