By By Alec MacGillis and Gail Gibson and Del Quentin Wilber
Oct 25, 2002 | 3:00 AM
The trail of terror police say was undertaken by a Persian Gulf war veteran and his 17- year-old traveling companion has come to an end as investigators prepare to lodge murder charges in a string of sniper shootings carried out from the cover of woods, darkness and a car expressly outfitted for killing.
Former soldier John Allen Muhammad, 41, made a brief appearance late yesterday at U.S. District Court in Baltimore under unprecedented guard, on a charge of illegally possessing the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that authorities said late last night had been linked through ballistics tests to the sniper attacks.
With the 13 shootings - 10 of them fatal - taking place in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, prosecutors yesterday were determining which jurisdiction would claim the case and whether Muhammad should be tried in state or federal court. They were holding as a material witness Lee Boyd Malvo, a 17-year-old Jamaican whom Muhammad often had in tow.
The day's events began hours after midnight when police found Muhammad and Malvo sleeping in a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice at an Interstate 70 rest stop in Frederick County. After the men were arrested without incident, a police search of the car turned up the Bushmaster rifle, a gun tripod and - in one of the most chilling police finds yet - a "gunport" rigged in the back of the car to allow someone to shoot from inside the trunk, law enforcement sources say.
Other details began to emerge. At the height of the killings, witnesses say, Muhammad was spending the night in his car on the streets of Baltimore - a city many assumed was out of his range - where sandwich shop workers glimpsed him wandering about the Remington area looking for a hot meal.
And federal charging documents revealed that investigators caught up with Muhammad partly through a former Army friend, who said Muhammad had recently tried unsuccessfully to make a gun silencer - telling his friend, "Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?"
Montgomery County State's Attorney Doug Gansler and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio are scheduled to discuss the case this morning. Among the questions prosecutors are weighing is where they would most likely be able to win a death sentence against Muhammad; Maryland and Virginia have the death penalty, but Maryland has a moratorium on capital punishment. Virginia, meanwhile, has the second-most-used death statute in the nation.
Late last night, a weary but uplifted Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose congratulated the hundreds of investigators who worked on the case for three weeks. He expressed regret, however, that the arrests didn't occur sooner.
"My heart goes out to the victims and the families of these shootings," Moose said, his eyes starting to tear. "Our thoughts and prayers are with these people. We'll never know their pain, and we only wish we could have stopped this to reduce the number of victims."
His comments, accompanied by a bearhug with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, drew a highly unusual response from the horde of news reporters and cameramen gathered around him - a loud round of applause.
After three weeks of huge dragnets and round-the-clock media coverage, the end of the search arrived quietly, far from the public eye.
Shortly before 1 a.m. yesterday, a motorist at the rest stop called 911 and reported seeing the car that police had put out an alert for only one hour before. There was no one visible inside the parked car, police were told.
State police alerted the sniper task force in Montgomery County, closed westbound I-70, and rushed to set up a perimeter around the rest stop, tucked among trees just off the highway near Myersville, about 11 miles west of Frederick. Just after 3:30 a.m., heavily armed agents made their move, rushing the car and breaking the windows - and only then discovering that the two men were sleeping in the car.
Police arrested the pair without resistance and drove them to Montgomery County police headquarters in Rockville for questioning, police said.
The arrests lifted a cloud of fear from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, which saw residents' lives transformed by terror: Schools went into "lockdown mode" and canceled outdoor recess; gas stations hung draping to protect customers; and shoppers ran across parking lots to make themselves a tougher target.
The end of the anxiety also released waves of pent-up emotion, with tears more prevalent than smiles.
"It's been such a long time coming," said Alex Millhouse, a mechanic at the Aspen Hill Mobil station where Prem Kumar Walekar, 54, was shot while refueling his taxi Oct. 3. Millhouse found the victim slumped against a nearby van.
For the past three weeks, Millhouse's 7-year-old daughter "has been asking me what a sniper is, and I haven't wanted to lie to her," Millhouse said. "It's going to be a relief to tell her that the problem doesn't exist anymore."
The first public view of the man suspected of being the sniper came in yesterday's brief federal court hearing, where Muhammad appeared in a packed courtroom wearing a teal jail jumpsuit and handcuffs. He spoke little in court other than to acknowledge that he understood the federal firearms charge brought against him in Seattle. Neither he nor Malvo has provided any statement to police, and neither has requested a lawyer, investigators said.
Earlier, Malvo appeared at a closed hearing in the courthouse. Both suspects arrived under an intense police presence. A team of city tactical officers armed with automatic rifles ringed the courthouse on Lombard Street. Muhammad was brought to the building from the FBI's Woodlawn office in a convoy of five sport utility vehicles, each with tinted windows.
Court records made public after Muhammad's hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner show that he bought the A-35 model Bushmaster rifle at a gun shop in Tacoma, Wash., in March 2000. The purchase was made less than a week after he was barred from owning a weapon under a domestic violence restraining order prompted by complaints from his ex-wife, Mildred Denice Muhammad, now of Clinton, Md.
Accompanying the region's relief yesterday was widespread surprise about the facts surrounding the two men in police custody - men who fit almost none of the possible profiles being circulated for the sniper. For weeks, experts mostly agreed that the sniper was acting alone; that he was most likely white, as most serial killers have been; and that he was a resident of the Washington suburbs, thus familiar with getaway routes.
Yesterday's arrests contradicted all those assumptions. It also provoked bewildered questions about the pair under arrest, a man and a teen-ager who, according to police, traveled across the country from Tacoma and prowled the streets of a region to which they had little connection. In Baltimore, where Muhammad spent the night of Oct. 8 sleeping in his car on 28th Street in Remington, residents were shaken to consider that the suspected killer moved among them.
"I walk past the 28th Street Bridge all the time to visit my mother," said Stephen Hagins. "That scares the hell out of me."
The arrests came after a rapidly expanding team of investigators repeatedly seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, only to find itself flummoxed and facing yet another shooting without solid leads. A strong witness description turned out to be a fraud; multiple roadblocks proved ineffective; the promising arrests of two immigrants in Virginia turned out to be baseless.
New details about the investigation, and the clues leading to yesterday's arrests, show just how close authorities came to previously cracking the case only to have the sniper commit more shootings.
Most notably, on the night of Oct. 3 - the day the sniper killed five people in Montgomery County and Washington - a witness reported seeing a dark-colored Caprice with its lights off leaving the scene of the nighttime killing of Pascal Charlot in Northwest Washington, a law enforcement official said. But police continued to focus on earlier sightings of a white van or a white truck, and over the next three weeks repeatedly told the public to look for that kind of vehicle.
Then, one day after a 13-year-old was shot in Bowie as he entered school, a Baltimore city police officer came upon Muhammad - without realizing who he was. Muhammad was sleeping in the Caprice on 28th Street and was questioned about the discrepancy between his New Jersey plates and Washington license.
Muhammad told him he was traveling from Virginia to New Jersey, and the officer continued on his rounds, sources and records show.
According to a federal law enforcement source, police came close to missing the tip that wound up leading them to Tacoma. On Oct. 17, a federal law enforcement official said, the sniper called the Montgomery County Police Department - one of a half-dozen attempts he made to reach detectives on the case, only to have police doubt his credibility. Trying to get police to take him seriously, the sniper told the public information officer who answered the telephone about a robbery and homicide in "Montgomery."
Police were unsure whether the call was credible. But a day later, the sniper called a Catholic priest in Ashland, Va., and told him about the robbery and homicide, the federal official said.
The priest called the police Oct. 18 and relayed the information, the source said. The account was similar enough to spark police interest, and investigators began looking into homicides in places called Montgomery.
On Sunday, the day after the sniper shot and wounded a man in Ashland, Va., police made a crucial discovery: A Sept. 21 double shooting outside a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., that killed a woman bore similarities to the sniper shootings.
The gunman in that case used a handgun, not a rifle, sources say, but the shooting was not at point-blank range and did not appear to be a traditional robbery.
Investigators raced to try to complete their detective work before the killer struck again.
On Monday, sources say, police traced a fingerprint found on an assault rifle brochure at the scene to Malvo. The youth was in the FBI fingerprint database because of a run-in with immigration authorities in December, when he and his mother tried to illegally enter the country in Miami, a former immigration official said.
They were charged with immigration violations and are scheduled for a coming immigration hearing, the official said.
The same day as the fingerprint match, the FBI determined that Malvo had been living with Muhammad at a house in Tacoma and that the pair were probably traveling together, investigators said. Malvo, who has been in the country off and on since 2000, is not related to Muhammad but at times described himself as his son.
Authorities were closing in, but the next day, the sniper struck again, killing Conrad Johnson, a bus driver, in Aspen Hill.
Later in the day, the FBI went to work in Tacoma, near Fort Lewis, where Muhammad had served in the 1980s. In his 17 years in the service before his 1994 discharge, he achieved the highest possible marksmanship rating with the M-16 but had no affiliation with sniper units, records show.
FBI agents obtained search warrants for the house in Tacoma and interviewed Muhammad's former Army friend, Robert Edward Holmes, who said Muhammad had visited him three times in the past six months to show off rifles and talk about shooting, court records show.
Investigators in Tacoma on Wednesday morning began a painstaking search of Muhammad's former house and its back yard, looking for bullets used in target practice.
Asked why investigators did not seek a search warrant for Tacoma on Monday, the federal official said, "Everything was happening lightning quick."
"We had two separate investigations going on that we had not completely linked, and there was no reason to conclusively make the connection between Malvo and the sniper shootings," the official said. Investigators "were tracking 20 other strong possible leads. There was no way to prejudge" which one would pan out.
In Alabama yesterday, residents were stunned to learn that the crime many had assumed was just a robbery gone wrong had actually been linked to a killing rampage that gripped the nation. "My sister said, 'Turn on the news, you're not going to believe this,'" said Chuck Smider, the owner of the liquor store building.
The double shooting seriously wounded a store clerk, Kellie Adams, and killed the store manager, Claudine Parker, a grandmother who was six months from retirement, Smider said.
Donna Weathers, 42, who was inside the store next door at the time of the shooting, rushed into the bathroom with a friend when they heard gunshots. Moments later, her friend peeked out and saw a young black man wearing white shorts and a blue shirt running across the parking lot, she said.
Montgomery police Chief John Wilson said yesterday that the shootings have been linked to the Washington-area sniper attacks.
In Tacoma, residents were equally stunned to learn that the Washington sniper had a strong local connection. On Tuesday, Becky Cousineau saw two men with suits and silver briefcases come to the house across the street where Muhammad used to live. She assumed they were Jehovah's Witnesses - later, she realized they were probably federal agents.
Chris Waters, an Army officer who lives across the street, had wondered last winter about the gunshots he heard every night for a month, intermittent cracks of semi-automatic gunfire. He now believes it was Muhammad taking target practice.
Back in Maryland - where the shootings were always immediate - the day's revelations were far more painful. Less than a mile from the gas station in Aspen Hill, a Ride On bus driver stopped and left a pot of chrysanthemums at the bus stop where fellow driver Johnson, 35, was fatally shot Tuesday, in the most recent sniper attack. A neighbor had left a handwritten note on the grass: "Sir, Just wanted you to know that hopefully they have been caught."
Sun staff writers Laura Sullivan, Scott Calvert, Michael Ollove, Walter F. Roche Jr., Jamie Stiehm, Stephen Kiehl, Jeff Barker, Tom Bowman, Tim Craig and Larry Carson contributed to this article.