Histories of 2 men remain a puzzle

Connection to Antigua apparently brought sniper suspects together

Search for the Sniper

October 25, 2002|By Scott Shane, Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Dennis O'Brien | Scott Shane, Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In July 2000, in one brief stop on the troubled odyssey of John Allen Muhammad, the Army veteran turned up in a government office on the Caribbean island of Antigua, his mother's homeland, looking for work as an elementary school coach.

In his application, he listed formidable skills from his 17 years in the military. He claimed to have attended "Special Forces/Sniper School" and even to have "taught urban warfare."

Antiguan officials decided that his two diplomas and two letters of reference were obvious fakes - correctly, it appears - and didn't give him a job. But it was the Antiguan connection that apparently brought Muhammad together with a teen-ager named Lee Boyd Malvo who had moved to the island with his mother from Jamaica.

Two years later, the Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, stand accused of a chilling brand of suburban warfare, roaming the Washington area in a sniping rampage that left 10 people dead and three wounded. They remained yesterday a mysterious pair, a young man and his surrogate father on a bloody road trip whose motive remains obscure but which unnerved the nation.

Neighbors and others who knew Muhammad in the 1990s described him yesterday as a quiet, disciplined man, a Muslim convert and auto mechanic who showed no sign of a violent streak.

But court records show that in the past three years his marriage dissolved in acrimony and violent threats, his wife warning at one point that Muhammad was capable of making "a weapon out of anything." His comfortable suburban life came unraveled. During the year before the shooting, he was accused of shoplifting $30 worth of steaks, vegetarian burgers and tea from a Tacoma, Wash., shop, and he and Malvo spent at least two months in a homeless shelter.

Bob Bianchi lived down the street from the family between 1994 and 2000 in comfortable Whapatio Estates, a community built around a natural lake in Tacoma.

Yesterday, Bianchi, 47, called the man then known as John Allen Williams a "very pleasant" neighbor who remained "kind of private" over the years.

In addition to the auto business he ran with his wife, he operated a karate school with Felix Strozier. Strozier noticed that whenever Muhammad came into the room, his son John Jr. "would always come to attention, military-style," showing that the father was a stern disciplinarian.

Strozier described Muhammad as quiet and a bit inscrutable.

Though his later claim of sniper training was an exaggeration, military records show he had achieved an "Expert" rating with an M-16, the best of three categories of Army marksmanship. That rating requires a soldier to hit 36 of 40 stationary targets at a range of 50 to 300 meters, military officials said.

Born in New Orleans on the last day of 1960, Muhammad was the fourth child of a Pullman train porter and an Antiguan immigrant, according to his birth certificate.

He served from 1978 to 1985 in the National Guard in Louisiana. The only blot on his military record came in 1982, when he was court-martialed twice - once for striking a noncommissioned officer in the head and once for failing to turn up on time for police duty, according to military records.

He joined the active-duty Army in 1985, about the time his first marriage, to Carol Williams, came to an end and he adopted the Muslim faith.

He had a varied Army career as a combat engineer, a specialty that involves everything from building roads and removing mines to repairing vehicles and setting up water supplies. A fellow soldier said Muhammad was considered a proficient mechanic, particularly on Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, which he knew from his Guard service.

Over the next nine years, Muhammad served at Fort Lewis in Washington state, at Fort Ord in California, in Germany and in the Persian Gulf war, earning several medals and attaining the rank of sergeant. He then spent a year in the Oregon National Guard, being discharged honorably in April 1995, said Maj. Arnold Strong, a Guard spokesman.

Six months later, Muhammad volunteered as a security guard at the Million Man March in Washington, Leo Dudley, a Tacoma neighbor and former Marine, told The Seattle Times. Dudley described his former neighbor as being in excellent physical shape.

"Any time he shook your hand, he would crush it," Dudley said. "He was just country. He was from down South, and the military brought him up here."

But the karate business failed, and the auto business, called Express Car Truck Mechanic Inc. and boasting the slogan "We come to your home or office," also had its struggles. Despite sales of $84,000 in 1999, the shop was hit with seven orders for unpaid taxes and 17 civil judgments totaling $42,673.

By the late 1990s, Muhammad's second marriage was in trouble. He separated from his wife, Mildred D. Williams, in September 1999, moving out of their 1,000-square-foot rambler on South Ainsworth Avenue.

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