Sniper shootings coverage
The map book - stolen from the Reisterstown Road branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library - could have led investigators straight to their prey.

When police searched the parking lot opposite the gas station in Manassas, Va., where last year's serial sniper killed a seventh victim, they found a map of Baltimore that held fingerprints of both suspects, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. But that clue, like many others, went untapped until much later, after three more people had died.

With Muhammad's capital murder trial under way in Virginia Beach, the victims' families and others involved in the case are being hit with new reminders of one of the most painful aspects of the shootings: that investigators missed many chances to halt the sniper's reign of terror earlier.

Perhaps the starkest new example of this arose at the shooting scene where the map book was found. A police officer testified last week that, in the frenetic moments after the fatal shot was fired, he encountered Muhammad at the Manassas scene. But Muhammad bluffed his way through a police dragnet with a blatant fib that the officer didn't catch.

"Everyone is kicking themselves after the fact," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. "There are these close encounters that will have people questioning the [investigation]."

In any drawn-out investigation it is possible to find things that, in retrospect, could have been done differently. But the sheer number of missed chances in the sniper hunt has many, including some of the victims' family members, wondering why the suspects weren't caught sooner.

Even before last week's testimony, the list of known lost opportunities was lengthy. A warning to the FBI in Washington state about Muhammad's violent threats three months before the shootings was ignored. Receptionists handling the sniper tip line spurned the suspects when they called to communicate with authorities. A witness report of the suspects' blue Chevrolet Caprice near the scene of the shooting Oct. 3 of Pascal Charlot went unexplored.

"All of us who hear of the missteps of authorities are very disappointed," said Charles-August Charlot, a cousin of Charlot, a 72-year-old Haitian immigrant shot in Northwest Washington, D.C. "It is disturbing for [everyone], not just the families. How come the police had chances and ignored them?"

The map book was found by Prince William County police Officer Steven A. Bailey in the parking lot at the Bob Evans restaurant across from the Manassas Sunoco where Dean H. Meyers, 53, was shot Oct. 9. Ralph Daigneau, a crime scene investigator for the Prince William Police Department, testified last week that he was given the book the next day and lifted usable prints from it.

Fingerprint match

But it was not until after the suspects' arrest Oct. 24 that those prints were linked to Malvo and Muhammad. A fingerprint examiner with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified that he received the prints Aug. 20 and matched them to the suspects.

Left unanswered in court was why the prints hadn't been sent through national databases immediately after they were found. Asked about the timing Friday, Prince William County prosecutor Paul B. Ebert said he didn't know when the first match between the prints and the suspects was made.

In an interview last week, Prince William Sgt. Kim D. Shinn said that the map had stayed in the department's hands during the investigation and that its importance wasn't immediately recognized.

"At that crime scene, we collected tons of evidence; pieces of paper; scraps of this, that or the other thing," she said. "Once it's collected, it has to be identified and packaged. It's a large task."

Ross, the criminologist, said the map book may have been overlooked initially because investigators were focusing so heavily on telephoned tips, rather than on physical evidence. The failure to focus on the book may also have been one example of clues being lost in the cracks in a far-flung investigation involving a dozen law enforcement agencies, he said.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the map prints.

Had the prints been run through the system immediately, they may have raised some flags for investigators. Malvo's prints were in a federal database as a result of an immigration violation, and Muhammad's were on file from his service in the military.

But Thomas P. Mauriello, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, said the prints may not have produced a match to the two men, given the limitations of combing vast databases for links.

If a match had been made, it is possible that investigators would have taken notice that a 41-year-old former Army sharpshooter who had been overheard making threats in Washington state was at the scene of a shooting with a 17-year-old boy who was not his son.

In addition, Malvo's prints were in the hands of authorities elsewhere: They were on a gun brochure found at the scene of a fatal shooting at a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 21 last year. But those prints were also languishing - they had been sent to a regional database in the Southeast, but not to any national ones.

It was only after the suspects boasted about the Alabama shooting in a call to police that the brochure prints were linked to Malvo. That in turn led police to Muhammad, breaking the case open - nearly two weeks after the Manassas shooting.

Encounters with police

Soon after the suspects were arrested, reports emerged of encounters with police that the suspects had survived without trouble, including several traffic violations and a Baltimore police officer's discovery Oct. 8 of Muhammad sleeping in the Caprice in the Remington area.

But none of the encounters held as much peril for the suspects as the one in Manassas that the Prince William officer described in court last week.

Bailey testified that he was checking cars leaving the Bob Evans lot opposite the Sunoco when Muhammad pulled up in the Caprice. Bailey testified that Muhammad, who was "very polite and very courteous," told him that he had been directed into the lot by other officers.

Under scrutiny, this explanation didn't ring true: Police were barring cars from entering the lot, not waving them in. But Bailey let Muhammad drive off without recording his license plate. Bailey testified that he had stopped taking down plate numbers because drivers were becoming irate about the delay.

It was up to Muhammad, in his brief stint as his own lawyer last week, to point out this oversight in court. He asked Bailey whether the claim about having been directed into the parking lot made any sense.

"I didn't catch on," Bailey responded to the man he said he had let go. "I wish I had."

Asked about Bailey's decision, Shinn, of the Prince William Police Department, said in an interview that it is easy to see why, with so many agencies at the scene, Bailey might have believed that officers had in fact directed Muhammad into the lot.

"In the midst of something like that, you have no way to know whether someone told someone something," she said. "When the dust settled, [Bailey] found out that wasn't the case."

Several criminologists say another factor may have encouraged Bailey to wave Muhammad on: At that point, police were still fixated on reports that the sniper was driving a white van or truck. Bailey had searched a white van before talking to Muhammad.

Also, many self-described criminal profilers had been speculating in the news media that the sniper was white - an assumption that may have filtered to officers at roadblocks.

Police "had tunnel vision on two things - from the get-go they were looking for a white van, and they were looking for a white man," said Maurice Godwin, a criminal justice professor at Methodist College in North Carolina. "That locked them in for the whole investigation."

Last week's testimony also offered the most vivid account yet of the one moment when the sniper suspects were literally just a few steps out of the grasp of authorities - the foot chase by Montgomery, Ala., police after the Sept. 21 liquor store shooting, which killed a clerk and wounded another.

Officer James N. Graboys testified that he got out of his cruiser to chase Malvo over a 6-foot-tall fence at the end of an alley - to no avail.

"The way he was moving - he looked to me almost like a high school athlete. He was moving very fast, very quickly, very confident. He was in shape," Graboys said. "I got over the fence as quickly as I could. But I don't believe I cleared it nearly as gracefully as the subject."

By the time Graboys got over the fence, Malvo had gained about 150 feet on him and then disappeared behind a Dumpster, the officer said. "When I lost sight of him there, that was the last I saw of him," he said.

Two weeks later, the sniper shootings began.

Sun staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.