By Scott Shane and Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Dennis O'Brien
In July 2000, in one brief stop on the troubled odyssey of John Allen Muhammad, the Army veteran turned up in a government office on the Caribbean island of Antigua, his mother's homeland, looking for work as an elementary school coach.
In his application, he listed formidable skills from his 17 years in the military. He claimed to have attended "Special Forces/Sniper School" and even to have "taught urban warfare."
Antiguan officials decided that his two diplomas and two letters of reference were obvious fakes - correctly, it appears - and didn't give him a job. But it was the Antiguan connection that apparently brought Muhammad together with a teen-ager named Lee Boyd Malvo who had moved to the island with his mother from Jamaica.
Two years later, the Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, stand accused of a chilling brand of suburban warfare, roaming the Washington area in a sniping rampage that left 10 people dead and three wounded. They remained yesterday a mysterious pair, a young man and his surrogate father on a bloody road trip whose motive remains obscure but which unnerved the nation.
Neighbors and others who knew Muhammad in the 1990s described him yesterday as a quiet, disciplined man, a Muslim convert and auto mechanic who showed no sign of a violent streak.
But court records show that in the past three years his marriage dissolved in acrimony and violent threats, his wife warning at one point that Muhammad was capable of making "a weapon out of anything." His comfortable suburban life came unraveled. During the year before the shooting, he was accused of shoplifting $30 worth of steaks, vegetarian burgers and tea from a Tacoma, Wash., shop, and he and Malvo spent at least two months in a homeless shelter.
Bob Bianchi lived down the street from the family between 1994 and 2000 in comfortable Whapatio Estates, a community built around a natural lake in Tacoma.
Yesterday, Bianchi, 47, called the man then known as John Allen Williams a "very pleasant" neighbor who remained "kind of private" over the years.
In addition to the auto business he ran with his wife, he operated a karate school with Felix Strozier. Strozier noticed that whenever Muhammad came into the room, his son John Jr. "would always come to attention, military-style," showing that the father was a stern disciplinarian.
Strozier described Muhammad as quiet and a bit inscrutable.
Though his later claim of sniper training was an exaggeration, military records show he had achieved an "Expert" rating with an M-16, the best of three categories of Army marksmanship. That rating requires a soldier to hit 36 of 40 stationary targets at a range of 50 to 300 meters, military officials said.
Born in New Orleans on the last day of 1960, Muhammad was the fourth child of a Pullman train porter and an Antiguan immigrant, according to his birth certificate.
He served from 1978 to 1985 in the National Guard in Louisiana. The only blot on his military record came in 1982, when he was court-martialed twice - once for striking a noncommissioned officer in the head and once for failing to turn up on time for police duty, according to military records.
He joined the active-duty Army in 1985, about the time his first marriage, to Carol Williams, came to an end and he adopted the Muslim faith.
He had a varied Army career as a combat engineer, a specialty that involves everything from building roads and removing mines to repairing vehicles and setting up water supplies. A fellow soldier said Muhammad was considered a proficient mechanic, particularly on Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, which he knew from his Guard service.
Over the next nine years, Muhammad served at Fort Lewis in Washington state, at Fort Ord in California, in Germany and in the Persian Gulf war, earning several medals and attaining the rank of sergeant. He then spent a year in the Oregon National Guard, being discharged honorably in April 1995, said Maj. Arnold Strong, a Guard spokesman.
Six months later, Muhammad volunteered as a security guard at the Million Man March in Washington, Leo Dudley, a Tacoma neighbor and former Marine, told The Seattle Times. Dudley described his former neighbor as being in excellent physical shape.
"Any time he shook your hand, he would crush it," Dudley said. "He was just country. He was from down South, and the military brought him up here."
But the karate business failed, and the auto business, called Express Car Truck Mechanic Inc. and boasting the slogan "We come to your home or office," also had its struggles. Despite sales of $84,000 in 1999, the shop was hit with seven orders for unpaid taxes and 17 civil judgments totaling $42,673.
By the late 1990s, Muhammad's second marriage was in trouble. He separated from his wife, Mildred D. Williams, in September 1999, moving out of their 1,000-square-foot rambler on South Ainsworth Avenue.
In February and March 2000, Mildred Williams, who later used the name Muhammad, filed domestic violence petitions against her estranged husband. A Pierce County judge granted her request for an "uncontested permanent restraining order."
She complained of bizarre behavior, such as the morning Muhammad claimed that he had tapped her phones to "destroy" her.
Another day, he forced his way into her house to see his son John Jr., who was sick, prompting an emergency 911 call. The next day, he returned to the house.
"John came over to inform me that he will not let me raise our children. His demeanor is such that its a threat to me," she wrote in a petition for order of protection. "I am still fearful of him."
On a Sunday in March 2000, according to court files, Muhammad took the three children for a weekend visit, telling his wife that he would keep them overnight and take them to school in the morning.
Instead, he took the children and disappeared, taking $521 from the children's bank account and borrowing $1,100 from a business partner, court papers say.
"He left me completely penniless," Mildred Williams wrote.
Two months later, she told police that Muhammad had threatened to kill her in a call to her mother.
She described her husband to police as 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, "very muscular" and "very charming." She added that Muhammad was "skilled in hand-to-hand fighting" and that he sometimes wore a military uniform with someone else's name on it.
"I am in fear for my life," she wrote several months later, seeking a restraining order. "He has made threats to destroy me. ... I am frightened for my children's safety. ... He has threatened to kill me. I may never see my children again."
Nearly nine months after her husband took the children, Mildred wrote in a court petition that she still did not know where they were: "He abducted them on March 27, 2000, and I have not seen or heard from them since that day," she wrote on Jan. 10 of last year. (In his legal reply, Muhammad claimed that Mildred had consented to his taking the children.)
For at least part of that period, Muhammad was in Antigua, the 14-mile-long island where his mother was born, on his ill-fated job search. He may have met Malvo during that visit, though Strozier believes he taught Malvo in the karate school several years earlier.
Lee Boyd Malvo - his name in formal documents, though he has sometimes been known as John Lee Malvo - was born and spent his early childhood in Jamaica, according to O'Neil Hamilton, a spokesman for the Jamaican Embassy in Washington. In 1998, he moved to Antigua with his mother, Una James, who took a job there. His father, Leslie Malvo, a building contractor in Kingston, called his son "a nice kid," though he said he hasn't seen him in four years.
By last year, the teen-ager had moved to Florida. He attended Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers as a 16-year-old senior from Aug. 13 to Oct. 16, said John Dattola, a spokesman for the Lee County School District. His previous school of record was on Antigua, Dattola said.
In October, Malvo left Florida and moved to Bellingham, Wash., joining Muhammad, who had legally adopted that last name the previous April. They lived together at the Lighthouse Mission, a Christian homeless shelter overlooking Puget Sound, about 130 miles north of Tacoma and 20 miles from the Canadian border.
Late Wednesday night, mission counselor Rick Woodruff was watching a live broadcast on the hunt for the sniper when he recognized the face in a black-and-white photograph. He called an FBI hot line to relay his recollection of Muhammad and Malvo, who were in residence for at least two months.
Malvo enrolled at Bellingham High School, where the yearbook listed him as a junior, one of 25 students who missed picture day. A classmate described him as studious, polite and well-dressed, but said he did not make any friends.
"He would speak up, and he would tell his opinion. You don't get that from many high school students," said Chrissie Greenawalt, who was in a writing class with him.
At some point, Malvo went home to the Caribbean because the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detained him last December as he entered the United States in Miami with his mother. He was fingerprinted and released pending a deportation hearing.
Back in Bellingham, school officials were concerned that they had no records of Malvo's previous schooling and asked police to check.
When a Bellingham police officer questioned Malvo on Dec. 18, Malvo said he was from Jamaica and was living at the shelter with his father. Despite that claim, and Muhammad's references to Malvo as his son or stepson, authorities believe they are not related.
The two men disappeared before police could follow up.
Their path since then can be traced only incompletely. Early this year they lived in a rented duplex in Tacoma, where police believe they practiced shooting in the back yard. In July, they turned up in Baton Rouge, La., for a three-day visit to some of Muhammad's relatives.
Sheron Norman, the sister of Muhammad's first wife, Carol, said it was the first time family members had met Malvo. Muhammad introduced him as his son, and Malvo addressed the older man as "Father," she said.
Norman said Malvo was allowed to eat only crackers and honey and nutritional supplements.
"You could tell he was scared," Norman said. "He was very, very quiet. You could tell he didn't like the way he was living."
Another relative, Sheila Tezando, described Malvo as "very caring, very respectful. Everything was 'Yes, ma'am, and no ma'am,'" she told CNN.
On Sept. 11, Muhammad and another man, Nathaniel Osborne, purchased a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with 147,000 miles from Sure Shot Auto Sales, Inc. in Trenton, N.J., according to Lillian Okupski, wife of the owner of the dealership. She said they paid $250 for the car, which was previously owned by a local police department and which is the car authorities believe was used in the sniping attacks.
On Sept. 21, police believe, Malvo was involved in a robbery of a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., that resulted in the fatal shooting of a clerk. Police found Malvo's fingerprint on a page from a weapons magazine in the parking lot, which was the clue that led them to arrest the teen-ager and Muhammad in the sniper slayings.
Last year, Mildred Williams was reunited with her children, John Jr., 12, Salena, 10, and Taalibah, 9. They moved to a cream-colored, two-story townhouse in Clinton in Prince George's County. Neighbors say they sometimes see the girls and their mother, who works as a nurse, in the head scarves worn by many Muslim women.
Krista Cannon, a neighbor, recalled young John helping her mother carry a load of groceries into the house.
"They seem like good kids," she said.
Sun staff writers Frank D. Roylance, Tom Bowman, Walter F. Roche Jr. and Laura Barnhardt and the Associated Press contributed to this article.