VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Buttressing a prosecution claim that John Allen Muhammad was the triggerman in a handful of last fall's serial sniper killings, a witness recounted yesterday that she saw Muhammad's car emerge from a secluded spot moments after a Baton Rouge, La., beautician was fatally shot with a high-powered rifle.
The testimony was intended to point to Muhammad as firing the shot that killed Hong Im Ballenger and to provide the jury with a theory as to how the alleged sniper team's early robbery-shootings went down. In each case, a rifle shot would be fired from a distance, and then Lee Boyd Malvo - Muhammad's alleged accomplice - would run to the fallen victims to collect their purses and wallets, the prosecution claims.
Ballenger, 45, was killed with a bullet from a high-velocity rifle, according to the medical examiner, like the .223-caliber Bushmaster found in Muhammad's blue Caprice on his arrest. Two witnesses said yesterday that they saw Malvo near the scene of the crime with a small handgun - indicating that the rifle was in someone else's hands.
Ingrid M. Shaw, who lives with her mother near the Beauty Depot where Ballenger worked, said that Sept. 23 last year she arrived home about 3 p.m. to see Muhammad's car parked under trees across from the shop. The car remained there until about 6:30 p.m., when Shaw said she heard a gunshot.
"I seen a fellow running toward my mom's house," said Shaw, who used binoculars to get a closer look and yesterday identified Malvo as the one she saw running. "He had a lady's purse and a gun. ... He got into a blue car."
Jurors also heard testimony yesterday in the killing of taxi driver Premkumar Walekar - one of the five shootings Oct. 3 last year that marked the beginning of the sniper attacks in the Washington region.
Walekar, 54, who was shot under his arm while pumping gas into his cab in Aspen Hill, stumbled to a minivan and asked another driver for help as his blood spilled onto the ground and over the side of the van.
"He had a look of shock, surprise, a very wide-eyed look," testified Dr. Caroline Namrow, a pediatrician who was in her minivan at a pump when Walekar was shot with a bullet from a high-velocity rifle. "He came to the passenger side and said 'Call an ambulance.' Then he fell."
Namrow said she called 911 on her cell phone and then rushed out of her van, leaving her 22-month-old son in his car seat, to assist Walekar. Asked if she was worried for her safety or her son's safety, she said, "I realized that he needed help, and I'm a doctor. I have to, I have to help."
As a dozen members of Walekar's family sat in the courtroom and sobbed softly, Namrow said she felt for Walekar's pulse and placed her hand on his forehead to begin rescue breathing. But before she did, she said to him, "You're going to be all right."
But Namrow testified that she didn't believe those words even as she said them, because of Walekar's weak pulse and the blood he had spilled. As Namrow described how Walekar's eyes rolled up into his head, the cabdriver's widow was overcome with sobs.
The Walekar shooting is the first of several Maryland killings that will be presented to jurors in the coming days. Last week, prosecutors introduced evidence from shootings in Louisiana and Alabama, and they suggested to the jury that Muhammad may have pulled the trigger in those attacks.
Muhammad is on trial in the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Northern Virginia gas station Oct. 9 last year - one of 10 killings in the Washington region that month. Prosecutors are introducing evidence from most of those killings, as well as other crimes linked to Muhammad, in an attempt to secure the death penalty.
Jurors also heard for the first time yesterday from one of Muhammad's relatives - a cousin, Charlene Anderson. She testified that Muhammad arrived at her home in Baton Rouge last year toting a rifle in an Army duffel bag and asking where he could find bullets to use in the weapon. He had two boxes of bullets, she said.
Anderson said Muhammad also arrived with Malvo and a story that the two were on a secret military mission to locate stolen C-4 explosives. As Muhammad told her that story over her kitchen table the night of his arrival, he brought in the duffel bag and opened it up to show the rifle in a case.
"Like the ones you see in the military," she testified. She said the weapon had a scope on it, but she could not identify it as a specific kind of rifle, nor did it have the bipod found on the Bushmaster in Muhammad's car when he was arrested. She said the rifle was black.
Defense attorneys tried to impeach Anderson's testimony, partially because two months ago she had told an investigator for the defense team that she did not see a gun during that visit. But Judge LeRoy F. Millette allowed the testimony.
Muhammad and Malvo stayed with Anderson for one night, she said, before she told her cousin that she had a visitor coming and she needed him to leave. That was a lie, she said. She just wanted them out of the house.
"My concern was with Malvo," she said, noting that she didn't like him home alone with her teen-age daughter. "I had an uneasy feeling with Malvo."
Moving on to Muhammad and Malvo's movements in Maryland, jurors heard from two employees of the Silver Spring YMCA, who said the two worked out at the gym on at least a half-dozen occasions last fall. Employee Stephen Kane said he saw Muhammad in the locker room the morning of Oct. 22 - hours after bus driver Conrad Johnson would be claimed as the final sniper victim.
"He had apparently come out of the sauna and he was sitting on a bench, with his elbows on his thighs and with his face in his hands," Kane testified. "I said, 'Is everything all right? Is anything the matter?' He looked up and said nothing was the matter, everything was OK."
Finally yesterday, prosecutors presented evidence in the Walekar shooting in Aspen Hill. Their first witness was Walekar's daughter, Andrea. On Oct. 3, she said, she was getting ready to go to work at the Leisure World Shopping Center when a co-worker called and said someone had been shot there and she should stay home.
So Andrea Walekar watched television news accounts of the four sniper shootings until about 11 a.m., when she saw her father's cab in one of the reports. All morning, she had been calling his cell phone.
On seeing the car on television, she woke her mother and they went to the gas station. They were told her father had been taken to a hospital, and they went there to find that he had been pronounced dead hours earlier. Prosecutor James A. Willett asked her when was the last time she saw her father.
"The night before, I was typing up a paper, and he was asking me about my graduation," she said. This spring, she graduated from the University of Maryland.