Sniper suspect had talked to city policeman

Early Oct. 8, officer questioned man parked on lot at closed restaurant

Search for the Sniper

October 25, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm and Del Quentin Wilber | Jamie Stiehm and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The tall, lean man in shorts and T-shirt who came into the Subway sandwich shop in Baltimore's Remington neighborhood appeared polite and well-spoken. It was late on the evening of Oct. 7, and the stranger said he was hungry and tired.

But the store, at 28th and Sisson streets, was closing, and workers Marty Ruby, 25, and Holly Thompson, 21, nicely told him they were no longer serving customers. So the man, who walked with military bearing, nodded respectfully and headed back to his car parked in the lot.

Moments later, as the pair were bringing out the day's trash, the stranger came out of his blue Chevrolet Caprice and approached them again.

"He smiled and said, `I hope I didn't scare you,'" said Ruby. "He was as pleasant and as nice as he could be."

That man, investigators say, was John Allen Muhammad, 41, the Persian Gulf war veteran suspected in a killing rampage that terrorized millions of people around the nation's capital.

From the first moments when a sniper began firing on his victims in the Washington suburbs, authorities scrambled to find the killer's comfort zone - a home or office where he retreated after his attacks.

But now authorities suspect the sniper and his accomplice did little more than live an indigent life between the shootings, in which a gunman lay in wait for someone to cross his path.

The incident in Baltimore gives a rare glimpse into the lifestyle that police believe Muhammad and his companion, Lee Boyd Malvo, led on the road: sleeping in cars, eating fast food on the run, checking into cheap motel rooms, and circulating anonymously through back streets, gas station parking lots and rest areas.

It was about 9 p.m. on a Monday when Thompson and Ruby encountered the man - "nice and proper," Thompson said.

The man they identified yesterday as Muhammad told the women he was from out of town, planning to drive all night and just wanted to rest in his car. He asked whether they would mind. He stood barefoot, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, outside a car Thompson described as cluttered, as if he was living in it.

By chance, he had chosen a sandwich shop next to the Donut Connection, just off the Jones Falls Expressway - a few blocks from the offices of the city police warrant apprehension task force.

Thompson recalled a laptop computer, its screen glowing blue, on the car passenger seat. She also remembered the New Jersey plate. Neither saw any sign of a traveling companion.

"You could tell he wasn't from Baltimore," Thompson said. "His vocals didn't have an accent or tone."

That morning, the sniper who had been haunting Maryland and Virginia had shot and nearly killed a 13-year-old middle school student in Bowie.

The Subway closed. Muhammad stayed.

Just after midnight, he walked across the parking lot to a Mobil gas station and asked the cashier, Holly Holmes, 18, whether hot food was available there. After she said no, he walked over to the nearby 7-Eleven. When he returned, Holmes remembered, he bought from Holmes some chips, a brownie and a Coke.

"I thought he was a regular customer," Holmes said.

They exchanged good nights.

About a half-hour later, Baltimore Police Officer James Snyder, who works the midnight shift at the Northern District, drove by on his regular rounds. As usual, he waved to Holly Holmes, who waved back - their nightly signal that all is well. But police say Snyder noted the blue Caprice.

An hour or so later, Snyder drove by again. And this time, the officer became suspicious of the car, which sat in the lot with its windows misted over.

He ran the car's New Jersey plate through a police database, which turned up nothing unusual. But the officer decided he'd like to talk to the driver.

Muhammad gave Snyder a Washington state driver's license and the officer ran another computer check, this time to see whether the driver was wanted anywhere. That also turned up nothing, although Muhammad was wanted for a petty shoplifting charge in Washington state.

(Such minor charges are usually not entered in national databases.)

Muhammad told the officer he was on his way from Virginia to New Jersey to visit his father and had stopped at the parking lot for a nap. He asked Snyder for directions to Interstate 95 - a highway the sniper had routinely traveled. Then Muhammad drove off.

Snyder, as usual, filled out a report about the encounter. Details from that report, including Muhammad's name and date of birth, were entered into a city police database.

Later, as officials were trying to learn more about Muhammad, a U.S. marshal on the sniper task force recalled that city police had the extensive database and requested that police run Muhammad's name through it.

Information from Snyder's stop popped up.

That was first confirmation city police had that the man suspected in the string of Washington-suburban shootings had been hiding, at least briefly, in plain sight on Baltimore's streets.

Yesterday, Holmes said, Snyder came by to tell her the stranger they both saw that night was suspected of being the sniper, caught in one of the largest dragnets ever seen on the East Coast.

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