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How 'blue Caprice y'all are looking for' is found

Last fatal shooting, arrest of sniper suspects detailed

By Stephen Kiehl

Sun Staff

November 4, 2003

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The final scene of last fall's serial sniper ordeal played out on a dark, quiet night at a Frederick County rest stop. Outfitted in black flight suits and body armor capable of stopping a high-powered rifle bullet, FBI agents stormed a blue Chevrolet Caprice, not knowing what dangers they might face.

After smashing the tinted windows and opening the doors, they found the two suspects in the shootings - John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo - and a cache of evidence, including a Bushmaster rifle, walkie-talkies, earplugs and a brown glove that matched one found at the scene of the final killing.

Those items, and scores of others found in the car, were offered into evidence yesterday at the Muhammad trial as the prosecution began making explicit connections between the attacks and Muhammad. Prosecutors have not been able to place the rifle in his hands during the shootings, but yesterday they placed it in his car.

The .223-caliber Bushmaster was taken out of a box yesterday and put in the hands of two witnesses, both of whom identified it as the one they found behind the back seat of the Caprice. It was found in the fire mode, with the safety off, and held a live round of ammunition, said one law enforcement agent. Ballistic evidence to be presented in coming days will link the rifle to eight of the 10 sniper killings, prosecutors say.

In the past two weeks of testimony, witnesses described lost and stolen items that were found in the Caprice and presented yesterday. Among them: Paul LaRuffa's Sony laptop computer, stolen when he was shot outside his Clinton restaurant, and a day planner that apparently belonged to Hong Im Ballenger, who was killed outside a Baton Rouge, La., beauty store.

Prosecutors began the day with last fall's final sniper shooting - that of bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, in Aspen Hill. His widow, Denise, testified that she last saw her husband at 4:45 a.m. Oct. 22 last year, when he left for work. When she got up at 6:30, she turned on the TV and saw crime scene tape around a Montgomery County bus.

"I kept calling his cell phone - 10 or 15 times - and he never answered," she testified. She would later receive a call from her mother-in-law, saying that Conrad Johnson had been shot. Johnson became teary when recounting that her husband was alive when she arrived at Suburban Hospital but died before she saw him. He had bled to death on the operating table.

Prosecutor James A. Willett asked her how she told her two boys, ages 7 and 15. "They knew," she said, "when I received that phone call that morning, that it was their father."

Conrad Johnson was struck in the lower right part of his chest with a bullet from a high-velocity rifle, testified Maryland's deputy chief medical examiner, Mary G. Ripple. She said it tore through his diaphragm and damaged his liver, pancreas, and major veins and arteries. The bullet did not exit his body.

Muhammad is charged with murder and is on trial in the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Manassas, Va., gas station. But 15 other shootings from several states have been allowed into evidence because the prosecution is building a case that Muhammad and Malvo were attempting to intimidate the public and influence the government.

Prosecutors said yesterday that they plan to rest their case early next week, while defense attorneys said they plan to present two or three days of witnesses. That means the jury could begin deliberations in about two weeks.

Yesterday, investigators who searched the woods across from the bus on which Johnson was shot said they found key pieces of evidence - a left-handed brown glove whose mate would turn up in the Caprice and another note in a plastic bag, this one speared on a tree branch.

The two-page note began with the snipers' salutation, well known to authorities by then, "For you Mr. Police, Call me God." Apparently frustrated that authorities had not followed the demands of an earlier note that requested $10 million, the snipers wrote in this letter, "Your incompetence has cost you another life."

The letter repeated the threat to children made in the earlier letter - "Your children are not safe" - and went on: "Can you hear us now! Do not play these childish games with us. You know our demands. Your choice. Thank you." Twelve stars were affixed to the note, and an arrow was drawn from one star to the words next person.

The next day, after tracing a fingerprint left on a weapons catalog at a Baton Rouge shooting to Malvo, authorities began narrowing their search to Malvo and Muhammad. A bulletin was put out for the pair's blue 1990 Caprice, bearing New Jersey tags NDA 21Z, late on Oct. 23. The information was quickly picked up by the media.

Around that time, supermarket refrigerator mechanic Whitney Donahue was getting into his white panel van after a job in Manassas, Va. On his drive home to Pennsylvania, he pulled off at a rest stop on Interstate 70 in Frederick County and saw a blue Caprice with the tag mentioned on the radio.

"I said, 'Oh man,' and I pulled in the spot directly across from him," Donahue testified yesterday. He tried to call 911 on his cell phone, but the call was dropped. So he used the restroom and walked back to his van. He walked to the rear of his van and pretended to look at a tire so he could double-check the tag on the Caprice.

He called 911 again, and this time he got through. A tape of the call was played in court. "The 1990 blue Caprice that y'all are looking for is sitting at a rest area on Route 70 westbound on South Mountain," Donahue said. "I read the tags when I pulled in. ... I didn't want to look too close."

He stayed on his cell phone at the rest stop from 12:37 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. while police surrounded the area and closed the interstate. At one point, he asked a trucker at the rest stop to drive by the Caprice and lightly toot his horn if the tag was correct. It was.

Asked by prosecutor Paul B. Ebert why he didn't go in for a closer look, he said, "I really wasn't wanting to get shot."

Soon enough, six members of the FBI's hostage rescue team, equipped with .223-caliber weapons, earplugs, body armor and helmets, would storm the car - two would go to the trunk, two to the driver's side and two to the passenger's side. They worked quickly because they knew what they were up against, one agent said.

"You've got a very heightened sense of urgency and concern based on what had taken place in the last month," said Charles Pierce, a supervisor of the hostage rescue team who participated in the arrests. "You are keyed up."

The agents smashed the windows and found Malvo lying across the front seat and Muhammad sitting in the center of the back seat, Pierce said. Both were pulled from the car and held on the ground.

Agent Neil Darnell asked Muhammad his name. "John Williams," he said, giving his birth name, which he had not used in several years. The agent asked who the boy was. "My son," he said.

The car was taken to a Montgomery County facility, where a search turned up evidence that was shown yesterday. Among the items: a duffel bag containing a rifle scope, a rifle magazine and a global positioning system; mittens with the fingertips cut out; and a 120-minute phone card from Wal-Mart.

Also found were plastic bags, a spent cartridge casing from a .223 round, a digital voice recorder, a slip of paper with the names and addresses of five schools in Baltimore County, and another slip of paper with the toll-free sniper task force tip line as well as the number of police departments in Rockville and Montgomery County.

And on the shelf above the back seat were about eight books, including Black Power and two copies of The Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity.