Two men sought in sniper case

Former soldier, stepson may be traveling in car with New Jersey plates

One seen in Baltimore recently

Authorities make link through Ala. shooting, Tacoma, Wash., tip

October 24, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber, Michael James and Alec MacGillis | Del Quentin Wilber, Michael James and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The hunt for the serial sniper who has killed 10 and gripped the entire nation in an unfolding plot of terror seemed to be racing toward a showdown last night as investigators sought two men - one a former soldier - who have been linked to the crimes through a fingerprint traced to an Alabama double-shooting.

John Allen Williams, 41, also known as John Muhammad, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, who lived together at a Tacoma, Wash., house before moving cross-country, were being sought for questioning last night. Police said they might be traveling in a 1990 burgundy Chevrolet Caprice, with New Jersey license plate NDA-21Z.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said at a midnight briefing that police were looking for Williams and a youth with him, and that Williams should be considered "armed and dangerous."

Stopping short of identifying Williams as the sniper, Moose issued another plea to the killer, asking him to contact police.

Authorities were swarming the area looking for the car and the two, who are believed to have little or no money and might be frequenting inexpensive hotels and homeless shelters.

Their whereabouts in the area throughout the sniper attacks is unclear. However, police in Baltimore logged a report indicating that on Oct. 8 - at the height of the three-week sniper manhunt - Williams had been in Baltimore and had a run-in with city police, a law enforcement source said.

The tip that led the sniper task force to investigate Williams came from someone in the Tacoma area who called police. Williams is wanted on an outstanding shoplifting warrant filed by Tacoma police and on a federal firearms warrant that police say is unrelated to the shootings in the D.C. suburbs. Malvo is wanted on a material-witness warrant sealed in a U.S. District Court.

Another break in the case came from a recent phone call made by the sniper to authorities, when he said in a garbled message to police that investigators should "take him seriously." At the end of the conversation, the killer made a remark that helped police zero in - telling police that they should "check with the people in Montgomery," or words to that effect, a law enforcement source said.

While they were initially unsure what the sniper meant by that remark, police eventually hit upon the right avenue that led them to a critical clue. They checked every shooting that occurred in recent months in Montgomery, Ala., and found a double-shooting outside a liquor store there Sept. 21 that involved .223-caliber ammunition - the same used by the Washington-area sniper, the law enforcement official said.

In that shooting, one woman was killed when she was shot in the back as she was closing an ABC Liquor store, and another woman was critically injured.

Employee Kellie Adams, 24, told The Sun she was shot in the neck just after she left the store with her co-worker at about 7:20 p.m.

"I didn't see the person who shot the manager. We had just walked outside, and our backs were turned," she said, adding that she thought the shooting happened at point-blank range.

A police officer saw a man running away, and police created a composite sketch of a black man, she said. "I didn't see the person," she said.

Later found at the scene of the crime, originally thought to be a robbery gone bad, was a flier or another piece of paper that bore Malvo's fingerprint, the source said. Police traced Malvo to a Tacoma house where he had been living with Williams, a former soldier at nearby Fort Lewis.

Yesterday, dozens of police and federal agents searched the house and its rear yard, where they hauled off an uprooted tree and a nearby stump that might have been the targets of shooting practice.

Neighbors said several dozen investigators were poring over the rear yard of the white duplex house with metal detectors, searching cars parked nearby and carrying materials out of the house to waiting trucks.

Agents had been at the house since late morning, neighbors said, and were expected to continue their work into the evening.

David Burnson, who has lived on the block for four decades, said last night that authorities were interested in a former soldier at nearby Fort Lewis, which is about 15 minutes from the neighborhood.

"There's nothing to be concerned over here now they say," Burnson said in a telephone interview. "They have a Fort Lewis person in mind who used to live here in the past. And I know they took away a tree stump that might have some bullets in it."

Burnson said he recalled occasionally hearing gunshots in the neighborhood, but was uncertain which property they came from.

Other neighbors were perplexed as they watched police cars fill the streets and saw agents carry out the tree and trunk..

Joshua Molzan, 28, a mechanic who lives a few doors down from the property that was searched, said he understood that the owner of the rental duplex might have tipped off police and was cooperating with the search.

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