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Sniper rifle tied to killing in Louisiana

Baton Rouge, La., Police Chief Pat Englade announces that first-degree murder warrants have been issued for sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17.
Baton Rouge, La., Police Chief Pat Englade announces that first-degree murder warrants have been issued for sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17. (AP photo)
The cross-country death toll that police attribute to an Army veteran and his teen-age traveling companion reached 13 yesterday as authorities in Baton Rouge, La., linked the rifle used in the Washington-area sniper slayings to the unsolved killing of a beauty shop worker in late September.

Law enforcement officials say the number could continue to climb. Police across the country are reviewing unsolved crimes to see if they could be the work of the two suspects in the sniper case who authorities say left a deadly trail in five states and Washington, D.C., as they traveled from the West Coast to Maryland.

The new discoveries could enable police to solve cases gone cold, but they further complicate the work of Justice Department officials in Washington, who are determining where John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, should stand trial first. The pair now face a long list of state and federal charges, which could bring the death penalty.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said investigators "are not ruling out" the possibility that other people could be involved in the shootings or that the two suspects had committed other crimes.

"We will proceed deliberatively, cautiously and not jump to any conclusions," Ashcroft said in Washington. "The facts and the evidence will determine the final outcome, and we intend to follow the facts wherever they may lead."

Louisiana - Muhammad's home state - became the latest to stake a claim to the suspects.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade said first-degree murder warrants were issued yesterday for Muhammad and Malvo in the killing of Hong Im Ballenger, 45, on Sept. 23 - two days after a similar attack linked to the pair in Alabama and about a week before the start of the sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area.

Englade said ballistics evidence linked the .223-caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle found in the blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice where the two men were sleeping when they were arrested last week in Maryland to the Baton Rouge robbery and shooting in the parking lot of a Beauty Depot Supply store.

Investigators said Ballenger had left work about 6:30 p.m. when she was shot and killed. A witness told police that a young man, believed to be Malvo, took Ballenger's purse after the shot was fired and ran out of the parking lot, according to the arrest warrants.

Another witness told police that a dark-blue vehicle, parked in a vacant field across from the shopping center, picked up the fleeing suspect about a block away, according to the warrant.

The case initially stymied investigators. But after reports about the same .223-caliber evidence turning up at the scenes of the sniper slayings on the East Coast, they began looking into a potential connection. In addition to ballistics evidence, yesterday's warrants said investigators searching the Caprice found receipts from two Baton Rouge stores that put the suspects in town at the time of Ballenger's death.

A federal law enforcement official said investigators are awaiting the results of ballistics testing in one other Louisiana case that they think could be linked to the two men: "This has become a nationwide investigation, and it's likely going to encompass several more areas," the official said.

In Maryland yesterday, Prince George's County prosecutors brought attempted-murder charges against Muhammad and Malvo in connection with the shooting Oct. 7 outside a Bowie school that left a 13-year-old boy wounded.

Justice Department officials are expected to determine within days whether the men will stand trial in state courts or in federal court. Both are in federal custody in Baltimore for now, where all proceedings against Malvo have been conducted in secret because of his age.

The Sun and The Washington Post have filed petitions in U.S. District Court in Baltimore seeking to open the court hearings for Malvo. Baltimore attorney Joshua R. Treem, who is leading Malvo's defense, objected in court papers, saying federal laws are designed to "protect the confidentiality of all juveniles, even unpopular ones."

A hearing on the newspapers' request, which is expected to be joined by other news organizations, is scheduled for today.

Yesterday's announcement of charges in Baton Rouge came as police in Montgomery, Ala., said the rifle used in the Washington-area sniper shootings also was used in the Sept. 21 liquor store robbery and killing that helped lead authorities to the suspects.

Montgomery Police Chief John H. Wilson scheduled a news conference for today to discuss the evidence findings. Muhammad and Malvo were charged last week with capital murder in the case.

Early this week, police in Tacoma, Wash., said ballistics tests linked the suspects to a February slaying there and to a shooting at a synagogue. The two have not been charged in those cases.

In Bellingham, Wash., where Muhammad and Malvo lived last fall and for periods in the spring, police are re-examining unsolved gun crimes and robberies as they try to determine how Muhammad supported himself with no visible means of income, said Lt. Dac Jamison, chief of detectives.

In Antigua, a panel investigating Muhammad's possible criminal activity on the island, including document fraud, delivered an initial report to Attorney General Gertel Thom. She declined to release its findings until today.

Muhammad and Malvo, a Jamaican native, are believed to have met on the Carribean island in 2000.

One islander, Randy Nelson, said he told one FBI agent about encounters where Muhammad talked about guns and shooting.

"I told [the agent] about the day on my veranda when we were talking about guns, you know - what types of guns he know about, and we talked about rifles," Nelson said. The welder said Muhammad then pointed at a construction worker standing in an open window of a nearby hospital and said casually that he could take him out from a distance of a half-mile.

In the months just before the sniper attacks, Muhammad and Malvo were living in the United States and appeared to be down on their luck, living in a series of shelters and cheap housing - sometimes pretending to be father and son.

In Baton Rouge early this week, relatives said that when Muhammad returned to his hometown this summer he looked so bad that relatives hardly recognized him. The man who had always effortlessly acquired cars, women and money now had none.

"I thought he was hitting hard times," said Muhammad's cousin Edward Holiday, who grew up with him in the tough section of north Baton Rouge called the Avenues. "Something was wrong."

Some area shopkeepers thought the same. Employees at Our Daily Bread Market and Bakery in Baton Rouge recalled spotting the pair three times this year, in late July, on Aug. 4 and again on Sept. 24 - one day after Ballenger's killing.

The bakery workers said they remembered the pair because their activity was so suspicious that the store filed a police report on Aug. 5 after Muhammad and Malvo spent 30 minutes in the store, filled up a basket, and then purchased only an ice cream treat.

"We thought they were taking stuff, perhaps," shop owner Alvin Himel said. The suspicions were aroused when Malvo came into the store wearing a long overcoat, an odd choice in a hot Louisiana summer.

While Malvo wandered the aisles, Muhammad chatted up the cashiers.

"He told me he was from Canada, that he was a traveling consultant going across the country healing people," cashier Sharla Greenwood said.

On Muhammad and Malvo's last visit, employees surrounded the pair as they walked through the aisles and took Malvo's backpack from him.

The confrontation angered Muhammad, and the two men quickly left, Greenwood said.

"He left, and he wasn't happy," she said. "We never saw them take anything. I just know that something wasn't right."

Sun staff writers Stephen Kiehl, Laura Sullivan, Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Scott Calvert and Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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