Federal sniper charges filed

A caravan believed to be carrying John Allen Muhammad, defendant in the Washington-area sniper shootings, pulls away from the federal court in Greenbelt.
A caravan believed to be carrying John Allen Muhammad, defendant in the Washington-area sniper shootings, pulls away from the federal court in Greenbelt. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)
GREENBELT - Federal prosecutors rolled out detailed charges yesterday that could bring the death penalty for the 41-year-old Army veteran suspected in the Washington-area sniper slayings, as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the attacks atrocities that merited "the ultimate sanction."

A 20-count complaint filed in U.S. District Court here charged John Allen Muhammad with using a firearm to commit murder as part of an interstate extortion scheme and revealed details about key evidence - including an apparent match between handwriting on a tarot card found at one shooting scene and a lengthy letter at another.

In a courtroom packed with spectators and under heavy guard, Muhammad made a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day and said little other than to acknowledge the new charges.

Those charges permit holding Muhammad in federal custody while officials decide where he and his companion, 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, should stand trial first. That determination rests squarely with the Justice Department, and Ashcroft made clear that one key factor would be a jurisdiction where a death sentence was most likely.

"There are already people who are saying that they don't think the ultimate penalties ought to be available, whether they're editorialists or others who don't believe in the death penalty," Ashcroft told reporters in Washington. "I believe the ultimate sanction ought to be available here."

Muhammad's court-appointed attorney warned against a rush to judgment. James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland, described Muhammad as a father and a Persian Gulf war veteran who was honorably discharged from the Army and who "has never been convicted of another crime at anytime, anywhere."

"What I'm asking for you to do at this point is to wait for the process to work," Wyda said outside the courthouse. "This is a situation where there is so much emotion, so much passion, that it breeds the chance for error and for mistake."

Before yesterday's federal complaint, prosecutors in four Maryland and Virginia counties had filed charges in connection with the attacks that left 10 people dead and three wounded, including a 13-year-old Bowie boy.

Maryland officials widely conceded yesterday that it was unlikely that Justice Department officials would send the case first to Montgomery County - where the shootings started and ended - because the state's death penalty laws are far more restrictive than those in Virginia or federal courts.

The greatest mystery surrounded Malvo, who was not publicly charged yesterday and who is too young to face the death penalty in Maryland or in U.S. court but could be executed in Virginia. Malvo was expected to face federal charges under seal that closely mirror the complaint against Muhammad, but officials refused to comment.

Ashcroft said a federal court must certify that Malvo should be treated as an adult before authorities can discuss his case.

Malvo has been held in federal custody as a material witness.

Federal officials also detained as a material witness the co-owner of the blue Chevrolet Caprice allegedly used in the three-week chain of sniper attacks. That man, Nathaniel O. Osbourne, was transferred from Michigan to Maryland and appeared yesterday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. Law enforcement sources say he has cooperated with investigators and is not a suspect.

Police arrested Muhammad and Malvo on Thursday as they slept in the Caprice at a rest stop along Interstate 70 near Frederick. A search of the car turned up key pieces of evidence - as well as some new mysteries - according to a seven-page affidavit filed with the charges against Muhammad.

Protruding from a hole in the car's trunk was a brown cotton glove "very similar" to another found at the scene of the last sniper attack, on Oct. 22 in Silver Spring, the affidavit said.

Police found shooting mittens, a military pack with a global positioning system and a wallet containing driver's licenses with several names - all bearing Muhammad's photo, the affidavit said.

The search also yielded the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that investigators have linked to the shootings, a Sony laptop computer, two-way radios, bolt cutters and a piece of garden hose.

On the ground next to the car was a single .223-caliber round - the same caliber used in the attacks, police say.

Also discovered in the search was Winchester .338 Magnum ammunition, found in two boxes, according to the affidavit. Other items suggest a mix of road-trip staples - clothes, shoes, compact disks, unidentified books and writings.

The affidavit was sworn to by Special Agent Scott E. Riordan, with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and FBI Special Agent Christopher R. Braga, who was cleared this year in the shooting of an unarmed Pasadena man whom FBI agents had mistaken for a bank robbery suspect.

In their affidavit, the agents confirm that a tarot card with the message, "I am God," found near a school shooting in Bowie on Oct. 7 apparently matched a four-page note demanding $10 million after an Oct. 19 shooting in Ashland, Va.

Malvo is not identified by name in the affidavit, but is referred to as Muhammad's "companion" or as "John Doe, juvenile." The affidavit says that someone in Tacoma, Wash., told authorities that Muhammad had another name for his young friend: "Sniper."

The complaint against Muhammad names only seven of the 10 victims of the sniper slayings - the six individuals killed in Montgomery County and one slain in Washington, D.C.

The three Virginia slayings appear to have been omitted by design because that state's broad double jeopardy law protects a defendant from being tried twice on the same set of facts.

Local prosecutors in Virginia say their state is best situated to try capital murder charges against both suspects. As high-ranking Justice Department officials continued debating whether that would happen, Ashcroft said his department would be "driven by justice, not by a calendar."

He said he hoped a decision would be prompt: "We understand slow justice could eventually be no justice."

Other states also are in line. Alabama authorities have charged Muhammad and Malvo with capital murder in connection with a Sept. 21 slaying at a liquor store in Montgomery. In Washington state, police have used ballistics evidence to link the pair to a February slaying and to a vandalism shooting at a Jewish temple.

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.