Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad told a jury yesterday that he came to the Washington area on a desperate search for his children, and that he was shocked when he and teenager Lee Boyd Malvo, whom he called "my son," were yanked from their car by authorities and accused of being the snipers who laid siege to the region in 2002.

Muhammad, 45, spoke about losing his children and choosing to fight the six murder charges for which he is on trial in Montgomery County, citing Plato, the Constitution and the Gospel of John. He is representing himself, having fired his public defenders after they said he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Three standby lawyers are helping him.

"I came to this area looking for my children," he said, explaining that the three had been taken from him by a court not long after his son, John Jr., had nearly drowned twice while swimming in the Caribbean.

Muhammad had kidnapped the children and taken them to Antigua, but after he returned to the Bellingham, Wash., area and they were discovered, a court on Aug. 31, 2001, turned them over to his ex-wife. She was allowed to relocate without telling Muhammad where they went.

"Aug. 31 was my Sept. 11," he said.

Muhammad's 17-minute opening statement, delivered in a soft voice from behind the defense table for security reasons, provided the high drama yesterday. It illustrated the unusual nature of the proceedings - a convicted murderer who allegedly terrorized millions in the Washington area holding court in the county that saw the most shootings.

His remarks seemed to be an effort to portray himself to the jury chosen earlier in the day as a loving and distraught father, a former soldier, a human being.

He did not mention the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle that police said was found in his car when he was arrested, or DNA and fingerprints tied to sniper shootings, all of which Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree had just linked to him during her opening statement.

"For 22 deadly days in 2002, this man, John Allen Muhammad, and Lee Boyd Malvo, his 17-year- old disciple and accomplice, struck fear in the heart of our community," Winfree said.

Muhammad, already on Virginia's death row for a sniper shooting, is being tried here for the six fatal shootings in Montgomery County that were part of the 2002 rampage.

He is charged in the killings of James D. Martin, 55; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54; Maria Sarah Ramos, 34; Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25; and Conrad E. Johnson, 35.

Malvo, now 21, is serving life terms for two fatal sniper shootings in Virginia. He might testify in the next few weeks against the man he said was his Svengali.

Muhammad, who briefly served as his own attorney in Virginia, implicated himself in that 2003 trial, telling a jury that he knew what happened at the fatal shooting of Dean H. Meyers, 53, in Prince William County because he was there.

Muhammad's ex-wife, Mildred, who was living in Clinton, testified then that she was terrified of him.

Yesterday, Muhammad offered an alternative explanation for why he and Malvo were driving around the Washington area.

Muhammad said that after losing custody of his children, he failed to locate his children at up to six addresses, then came to the Washington region with Malvo and a plan to cruise the area to look for them.

"We are going to circle the area and circle the area and see if we can find them," he said.

Wearing his standby lawyers' dark suit and gold tie, Muhammad asked jurors to be fair and listen to the evidence, which he said would include "quantum physics" and show that he and Malvo are innocent. He also explained why he calls Malvo his son.

Muhammad said he had saved John Jr. from drowning at a Caribbean beach on May 1, 2000, and that Malvo saved his son from drowning there exactly a year later. Malvo's heroism prompted his children to want to make Malvo "their big brother," he said.

"Ever since then, I swore to Lee, Lee Boyd Malvo, and my children, I would protect him the same way I would protect them," he said.

Eyebrows furrowed in the nearly filled courtroom as he spoke. Relatives of victims sat somberly. For some, such as Victoria Snider, sister of "Sonny" Buchanan, it is the third sniper trial they will attend.

Asked if it was hard, Snider replied, "It is, but this time, this is it. I hope this is it."

Prosecutors are to begin presenting evidence and witnesses today.

Earlier, Winfree spoke at length about the six sniper killings and placed them in the context of the 13 shootings, 10 of them fatal, in the Washington area.

She stood in front of a chart of photos of the victims as she snapped together the black Bushmaster rifle that had been used to kill 10 people as they pumped gas, loaded cars or walked hand-in-hand with their spouses.

Winfree showed graphic photos of the victims slumped and bloody at the parking lots and gas stations where they were killed. She told jurors that they would see and hear exhaustive evidence implicating Muhammad in the killings, including DNA, fingerprints, ballistics evidence and testimony from witnesses and one of the victims, Caroline Seawell of Virginia, who survived.

With chilling detail, Winfree listed the ways that Muhammad's blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice had been altered to make it a killing machine. A hole cut above the license plate allowed the shooter hiding in the trunk to target his victim. The back seat had been modified to hide the Bushmaster rifle and to enable the shooter to move quickly to and from the trunk. The interior lid of the trunk, which was left open slightly to make more room for the rifle, had been painted dark blue to blend with the car. Winfree described the large trunk as "comfortable" for the shooter who crouched inside, communicating by walkie-talkie with the driver.

As she held the rifle, a clone of the M-16 used by the military, Winfree explained that a bipod attachment gave the shooter "the time to get comfortable, stay comfortable and to wait for optimum conditions."

Winfree attributed the snipers' ability to elude police during the 22-day rampage to craftiness and "dumb luck." She enumerated the times when the suspects slipped by police or made threatening phone calls that were disregarded as hoaxes.

The Caprice, a former police cruiser, repeatedly caught the attention of officers. Yet the car and Muhammad passed police background checks. Muhammad charmed officers, Winfree said, adding, "He's polite. He's cool. He's respectful."

Data from police checks places Muhammad at or near the scene shortly before or after several killings, she said.

Winfree showed photos of each victim and spoke of their spouses and children. She stressed that each victim had been innocently going about daily tasks when gunned down.

Building to a crescendo, Winfree pointed to Muhammad 10 times as she listed the name of each victim and accused him of each killing. She showed photos of evidence left behind at the attack scenes, including a tarot death card, an ADC map of Baltimore City and County bearing Muhammad's fingerprints, a pen barrel that contained his DNA.

Prosecutors will introduce as evidence a laptop confiscated from Muhammad that contains maps with locations of five shootings marked with a skull and crossbones, Winfree said.

Winfree projected photos of letters left by the sniper, including one with 12 red stars indicating the first 12 victims and one black star representing the final victim, bus driver Conrad Johnson. Each letter begins, "For you, Mr. Police. Call me God."
Trial developments

• In opening statements, Muhammad told jurors that he was in the area looking for his children, who had been turned over to their mother by a judge, and that he did not kill anyone.

• He did not address the evidence presented by prosecutors, which includes a rifle connected to the shootings that police say they found in his car.

• Prosecutors showed graphic photos of victims and detailed evidence, including fingerprints, DNA, ballistics and witness testimony from a survivor.

• Jurors saw photos of items found at scenes of the attacks, including a tarot death card, ADC map of Baltimore City and County bearing Muhammad's fingerprints, and a pen barrel that contained his DNA.

Today: Testimony begins with the first of 135 prosecution witnesses.

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