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Sniper testimony begins

State starts case against Muhammad with vivid details of the first two killings

By Andrea F. Siegel and Julie Scharper

Sun reporters

May 6, 2006

ROCKVILLE

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One was reading a book in bed when the awful call came. Another was trying to get her young niece to take an after-lunch nap when two policemen came to her house.

Like the victims of the October 2002 sniper killings, relatives of the victims were absorbed in ordinary activities when horror struck.

As convicted murderer John Allen Muhammad watched coolly, the sister of the first sniper victim described yesterday how she had been in her home outside St. Louis about 11 p.m. Oct. 2, 2002, when she received a phone call telling her that her brother, James D. Martin, had been gunned down on the parking lot of a Wheaton grocery store.

"I have something terrible to tell you: Jim is dead," Oladell Martin recalled her sister-in-law saying. She wondered whether her 55-year-old brother, a federal worker and father of a young son, had a heart attack. Told he was fatally shot, she said, "I couldn't believe it."

That testimony, punctuated by a large image of a smiling Martin projected on a screen, began the prosecution's case against Muhammad, who faces six charges of first-degree murder in Montgomery County during shootings that left a total of 10 dead and three wounded in the Washington area and terrorized millions.

Using the witnesses to take jurors chronologically through three weeks in October 2002, Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree began building a case to show that Muhammad and his car were seen near sniper slaying sites within hours of shootings.

Yesterday, prosecutors got as far as the first two killings before court was adjourned until Monday.

Often resting his chin on his hands, Muhammad, who is representing himself, cross-examined the state's witnesses - but not their distraught relatives.

In his questioning, Muhammad sought to make the point that none of yesterday's witnesses had seen the shooter or could pinpoint the exact location from which the shots were fired. He scored a small victory when one witness said that he thought the bang came from a shotgun, not a rifle.

Kimberly Sadelson testified that she was loading groceries with her young son on the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse when she heard a gunshot at 6:02 p.m. and saw Martin collapse onto the blacktop.

"Did you see who shot this person?" Muhammad asked Sadelson.

Sadelson said she had not. The same held for Ever Albanez, a painter who testified that Martin said "Please help me" to him as he fell, clutching his heart. Albanez did not see the shooting.

Muhammad, who was convicted and sentenced to death for a fatal Virginia sniper shooting, projected confidence in the courtroom, nodding approval to exhibits and raising objections. He cross-examined the paramedics who tried to save the lives of the people he is accused of killing and the police officers whose checks of car tags, based on suspicions, came up empty. Dressed in a suit from the closet of one of his standby lawyers, he rested his hand on the small of the back of one of them, Baltimore attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr., during a bench conference.

Yesterday's testimony revealed details of the deaths of Martin and landscaper James L. "Sonny" Buchanan.

Buchanan was mowing the grass behind Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Kensington at 7:41 a.m. Oct. 3 when he was fatally shot. Jurors saw photos of the trail of blood that Buchanan left as he stumbled toward the auto showroom.

Several witnesses stiffened when Muhammad cross-examined them, and at least one, Fitzgerald Auto Mall employee Gary Huss, expressed outrage after his interaction with Muhammad. As Huss left the courtroom, he recalled later, he flashed his cross at Muhammad and quietly said, "You're going to meet your maker." Huss stopped in the courtroom as he reached Victoria Snider, Buchanan's sister, and kissed her cheek.

"I don't think that this man deserves an opportunity to question me," Huss said outside the courtroom after testifying about hearing a gunshot.

Ernest "Butch" Parker, another Fitzgerald employee, said he dropped to the ground after hearing the shot while checking cars on the lot. He said he saw Buchanan stumble toward him.

"I ran over to him. I tried to talk to him. ... He tried to breathe, but he really just couldn't," Parker said. He watched Buchanan's eyes glaze over and "saw blood everywhere," he said.

Snider said the graphic testimony was hard to listen to but important for her to hear.

"I want to know what the last minutes of my brother's life were like," she said.

Less than eight hours before Martin was killed, a Montgomery County police officer testified that he saw Muhammad's dark blue Chevrolet Caprice stopped in a southbound lane of busy Georgia Avenue. He was suspicious but could not pinpoint why, other than that it was stopped amid traffic. He ran a check on the tag and owner, and nothing unusual came up. The car, which had pulled onto a side street, disappeared before he could reach it.

An closer encounter came about an hour after the Martin killing.

Detective Sean Thielke said that he had left the grocery lot and went to Wheaton Plaza. There, seeing the car with New Jersey tags and tinted windows, which are illegal in Maryland, he, too, ran a check. It came up clean.

Muhammad was also spotted about 10 that night by security guard Portia Burch at White Flint mall; he was talking to a shopper who pointed in the direction of the dealership. Burch said she was struck by Muhammad being barefoot, but that she was reassured by his charm.

Lee Boyd Malvo, whom Muhammad refers to as his son, is serving life in prison for two fatal Virginia sniper shootings and may testify against Muhammad.

Muhammad has renewed his request to dismiss the racially mixed seven-woman, five-man jury, saying the jury pool knew about his highly publicized case. He has also asked to eliminate two prosecution witnesses and prevent prosecutors from showing the Caprice to the jury.

In the courtroom, members of the victims' families supported one another with hugs and pats on the hand.

"It's a horrible bond we share," said Oladell Martin. "But it's a bond."

Martin, who traveled from St. Louis to attend the trial, said that she came to represent other relatives and will stay for much of the trial.

"I would like to see it all over with," Martin said. "I want to be able to feel like Jim can rest in peace."


Developments

• Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree introduced the first witnesses yesterday in the case against John Allen Muhammad, charged in six Montgomery County sniper shootings in 2002.

• The fatal shooting Oct. 2, 2002, of the first sniper victim, James D. Martin, was described in detail, with witnesses saying they heard a gunshot and saw Martin collapse on a parking lot.

• Muhammad got a cool reception as he cross-examined witnesses, including one who said he showed his cross to the convicted sniper and quietly added, "You're going to meet your maker."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com julie.scharper@baltsun.com