BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Authorities were notified nearly a year ago that John Allen Muhammad, one of two men held in Baltimore in the sniper shootings, had asked a gunsmith about modifying a rifle so it could be taken apart and carried in a small case before being reassembled for use, police here said yesterday.
Kristine Sagor, a former property manager at an apartment complex where Muhammad was doing odd jobs, told several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, that Muhammad had asked her for a ride to a gunsmith in a small bayside town near Bellingham, Sagor's lawyer said yesterday.
Sagor told authorities that in November, she accompanied Muhammad into the Ferndale, Wash., home of the gunsmith, where Muhammad asked him about modifying a rifle so it could be carried easily in public, said her lawyer, Harvey Chamberlin of Everett, Wash.
Chamberlin said Muhammad - who was barred from owning a gun - did not discuss his intentions for such a modified rifle with Sagor. But Sagor's notification to authorities represents the strongest indication to date that Muhammad may have been contemplating the use of a concealed rifle as early as a year ago.
"He wanted the weapon cut down and modified so it could be dismantled and carried around in a case and then reassembled into a rifle," said Chamberlin.
The string of sniper shootings that terrorized Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia for three weeks baffled authorities in part because witnesses never saw a man nearby carrying a rifle, though many of the shootings were in busy public places.
Authorities speculate that the gunmen sometimes shot out of a hole in their car trunk. Other times, they appear to have shot from the cover of woods.
Lt. Dac Jamison, chief of detectives for the Bellingham police, confirmed that Sagor had called his department Nov. 30. He said the police looked into the matter but decided not to take action.
"As far as I know, a detective sergeant followed up," Jamison said. Sagor "called in a suspicious person. It didn't rise to the level of any criminal activity. It's not illegal to possess a rifle you can fold up and carry."
Police now wish they had investigated the report further, Jamison said.
"She's a very well-meaning citizen and a great person to bring this to our attention. We'd like to say, 'Gosh, we did have a chance to interrupt this situation,'" he said. "In retrospect, it's very interesting."
Chamberlin said Sagor also notified the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,and the Border Patrol. A spokesman for the FBI in Seattle, Ray Lauer, said he couldn't comment on whether Sagor made a report to his agency.
Sagor's November call was one of several notifications authorities received in the past year from people concerned about Muhammad's behavior - tips the authorities decided not to pursue aggressively.
Anne Sagor, a former in-law of Kristine Sagor who was living with her last fall, said yesterday that Kristine had called authorities several times to follow up, without success. Anne Sagor said her former roommate was distraught at the news that Muhammad, along with Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, is being charged in the 13 shootings - 10 of which were fatal.
"She told them he's a flat-out terrorist. This was right after Sept. 11, and that's why they didn't take her seriously," said Anne Sagor. "Now she's devastated. She's feeling guilty."
At the time of Muhammad's visit to the gunsmith, he was prohibited from owning firearms as a result of a permanent restraining order imposed on him by Pierce County Superior Court at the time of his 2000 divorce. Chamberlin said Kristine Sagor was unsure, in retrospect, whether Muhammad had brought a rifle of his own to be examined by the expert, or only wanted advice about whether disassembling and reassembling a rifle was possible. She recalls seeing him carrying a long rifle case that day, Chamberlin said.
Jamison, the police spokesman, said police were not told that Muhammad was carrying a rifle. In addition, he noted, it would be difficult to shorten a rifle as much as Muhammad reportedly had requested of the gunsmith without reducing the gun's accuracy.
The gunsmith, a retiree, was not home yesterday at his house in the Neptune Beach neighborhood of Ferndale, in the northwestern corner of the state; a neighbor said the gunsmith had gone hunting. A double deadbolt secured the gunsmith's garage - an unusual measure in the small town.
It is unclear whether Muhammad owned a rifle when he visited the gunsmith. In May 2000, he sold back a high-powered Bushmaster rifle to a Tacoma shop, two months after being issued with a restraining order prompted by complaints from his then-wife.
And sometime during the summer, investigators believe Muhammad obtained the Bushmaster that police found when they arrested Muhammad and Malvo in their Chevrolet Caprice at an Interstate 70 rest stop west of Frederick on Thursday. That rifle, which went on the market in June, has been linked ballistically to the sniper shootings.
It is not known whether the rifle found in the car was modified so it could be easily taken apart and carried in a small case. Investigators speculated during the shootings that the sniper may have had some way of concealing his gun in public.
Sagor was property manager at the Country Garden Apartments, a complex north of Bellingham where Muhammad did occasional maintenance work last year. She told authorities that she did not know where Muhammad was taking her when he asked her for a ride, said her lawyer.
"She only found out what he wanted when he was telling the gunsmith what he wanted done," said Chamberlin, who denied reports that Sagor and Muhammad were romantically linked. "They were acquaintances - nothing more, nothing less."
Sagor's call to authorities, as it turned out, was just one of several contacts they had with Muhammad over the year - none of which resulted in a full-fledged investigation.
In October last year, the Rev. Al Archer, a minister at the Lighthouse Mission, says he notified the FBI about Muhammad because he found it odd that Muhammad claimed, again and again, to be flying around the country. Coming so soon after Sept. 11, Archer said, he found this strange behavior for someone living in a homeless shelter.
And not long after Sagor's call, Bellingham police had another encounter with Muhammad. On Dec. 14, Una James, Malvo's mother, went to Bellingham police asking for help in locating her son, who had been living at the Lighthouse Mission, a local shelter, with Muhammad.
After police and school officials looked into the matter, they discovered that Malvo and James were in the country illegally, and turned them over to immigration authorities. The deportation hearings were delayed, and Malvo went on living at the shelter with Muhammad.
Then, in June, a resident named Harjeet Singh who had become friendly with Malvo and Muhammad notified the FBI that Muhammad had been speaking to him about wanting to obtain a silencer for a rifle, and about shooting at police.
An official told the Associated Press last week that the tip was passed on to the ATF and Bellingham police. An ATF official said he discussed Muhammad "casually" with the Bellingham police.
Over the weekend, Washington police were exploring another possible reason that they should have been interested in Muhammad. Tacoma police spokesman James Mattheis said Muhammad is a "person of interest" in the Feb. 16 shooting of Keenya Cook. Cook was the niece of Isa Nichols, Muhammad's former accountant, who had helped Muhammad's ex-wife get control of their three children.
Muhammad had been arrested four days earlier in Tacoma on a shoplifting charge. He is the only person police want to question in the Cook case, Mattheis said.
"The conflict with Keenya's aunt is a definite tie-in," Mattheis said. Tacoma police are considering where to send a shell casing found at the shooting, which was carried out with a handgun, to see whether it can be linked to Muhammad.
Last week, before police confirmed Sagor's November report to police, Jamison told the Associated Press that Bellingham police had no reason to be overly concerned about Singh's June warning.
"If you hear that somebody has started thinking about the crime, but there's no plan, where do you go with that, other than to go interview the people?" Jamison asked. "By the time we were aware of it, Muhammad had been gone six months."
Sagor's report, however, had already been in their files for six months.
Sun staff writer Jonathan D. Rockoff contributed to this article.