U.S. prepares charges in sniper case

Federal authorities plan to bring charges as early as today against an Army veteran and teen-ager in the Washington-area sniper slayings, effectively cutting short the growing squabble among local prosecutors in Maryland and Virginia over who should take the high-profile case to trial first.

A senior Justice Department official said prosecutors would bring federal charges in Maryland, where the string of 13 attacks began and ended, and where six of the 10 who were slain died.

Using the sniper's demand for $10 million, officials could charge the suspects with committing murder as part of an interstate extortion scheme - a crime that carries the death penalty.

The federal government's move comes as local prosecutors continue staking claims to the case and as investigators from Washington, D.C., to Washington state explore links to other unsolved crimes.

At a news conference last night in Tacoma, Wash., authorities said ballistics tests have linked the two suspects in the Washington-area sniper attacks to a February slaying there and to a shooting at a synagogue.

Tacoma Police Chief David Brame said John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo Boyd had access to a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun used to kill Keenya Cook.

The tests performed by the Washington State Crime Lab also linked a .44 Magnum handgun to the suspects in what police described as a "vandalism incident" in which two shots were fired into Temple Beth el in Tacoma between May 1 and May 4.

Earlier yesterday, officials in three Virginia counties charged Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, in the sniper attacks.

They argued that Virginia was best positioned to try the men because, unlike Maryland or the federal court system, it allows capital punishment for offenders under 18.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler beat the rush last week, filing the first murder charges.

That rankled Justice Department officials and spotlighted behind-the-scenes tensions between the ambitious county prosecutor and Maryland's U.S. attorney, Thomas M. DiBiagio.

Gansler said last night that he was unaware of the federal prosecutor's plans, but he called it a "disappointment for the people of Montgomery County."

"Reason and common sense would suggest that we should be the first to prosecute the case," Gansler said.

"But the federal government, they have different interests here that may not comport with the interests of people in Montgomery County."

DiBiagio did not return phone calls. His office has said it would not respond to media inquiries about the case.

A Justice Department official said the decision to file federal charges did not mean U.S. prosecutors would automatically hold the first trial: "[T]he fact is that no decision has been made about who's going to go first."

But the federal charges could present a more compelling case for Virginia to hold the first trials.

Although the two suspects would face different charges in state court than in federal court - murder, for instance, instead of extortion - Virginia's broad double jeopardy law prohibits a second prosecution based on the same set of facts.

Because the suspects are in federal custody, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will determine which jurisdiction controls the case.

Ashcroft, who was traveling in Asia when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested last week, was briefed on the case yesterday. Ashcroft is a proponent of the death penalty, and that is expected to be a key factor in his decision.

Justice officials view Maryland's state courts as the weakest venue on that front - Malvo could not face execution because of his age, and several local prosecutors say the case does not appear to meet the state law's strict criteria for a death penalty prosecution.

The federal death penalty also does not apply to individuals under age 18, however. Federal prosecutors would have first to convince a judge that Malvo should stand trial as adult; that decision could be appealed.

Former Justice Department officials were divided yesterday on what role the federal courts should play.

Eric H. Holder Jr., deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, said the case should go first to local prosecutors in Montgomery County, the literal and emotional center of the case.

"Forget the legal stuff, just use a common-sense approach: Who had the greatest loss? Where was the greatest harm?" said Holder.

George Beall, a Republican former U.S. attorney in Maryland, said prosecutors should call a summit, allowing each office to lay out its case. Whoever has the strongest case should take the lead, he said.

"I think it's counter-productive to have this kind of footrace because [the suspects] aren't going anywhere, and to me it really smacks of posturing," he said.

Officials in Spotsylvania, Hanover and Prince William counties in Virginia all filed criminal charges yesterday against Muhammad and Malvo in the sniper attacks.

In Prince William, prosecutors filed charges under a new anti-terrorism law that would allow both men to be subject to the death penalty, even the defendant who was not the trigger-man.

Muhammad and Malvo were charged late last week with capital murder in connection with a Sept. 21 fatal robbery in Montgomery, Ala. In other parts of the country, police are re-examining unsolved crimes for links to the pair.

In Washington state, where Muhammad and Malvo were living earlier this year, a Tacoma resident, whose identity was not divulged, called the FBI on Oct. 24 - the day of the suspects' arrest - and told authorities that the pair had lived with him at his home on and off between February and April and full time from May to July.

He told authorities he and the pair bonded over a mutual interest in firearms and he let them borrow the weapons - a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and .44 Magnum.

Authorities also recovered a total of three handguns and two rifles from the man's home. The man's identity was not divulged, but police said he is not Muhammad's former Army friend, Robert Edward Holmes, who had previously tipped police.

The unsolved Feb. 16 shooting death of Keenya Cook, 21, is the earliest crime yet linked to the pair and suggests they might have started killing more than seven months before their alleged three-week sniping rampage.

Police said Muhammad and Malvo are suspects in the shooting of Cook, who was the niece of Isa Nichols, Muhammad's former accountant. Nichols had helped Muhammad's ex-wife get control of their three children.

Brame said he did not know whether Muhammad or Malvo fired the shots in either Tacoma incident.

Asked when charges would be filed, Brame said only that "the investigation is ongoing."

Police in Redmond, Wash., meanwhile, are looking at possible connections to the shooting death of a 49-year-old woman in July.

Louisiana officials have requested DNA samples from Muhammad and Malvo to check for a connection to a series of killings in the Baton Rouge area.

And Charles H. Ramsey, the police chief in Washington, D.C., has asked investigators to look into recent robberies to see whether Muhammad and Malvo could have been involved.

"I would imagine that every agency in the country is probably checking to see if they've had any contact with these individuals," observed Sgt. Gerry Blaire of the Flagstaff, Ariz., police.

Sun staff writers Stephanie Hanes, Johnathon E. Briggs and Laura Sullivan contributed to this article.