Suspects, authorities had met up previously

Before shootings began, men had crossed paths with law enforcement

Search For The Sniper

October 26, 2002|By Alec MacGillis, Scott Calvert and Michael Ollove | Alec MacGillis, Scott Calvert and Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

For weeks, it seemed to investigators - and the public anxiously tracking their progress - that they were a long way from catching the serial sniper who struck 13 times and somehow managed to elude capture.

Amid the horror of shooting scenes, there were no witnesses, no accounts of a killer's face, no definitive sightings of a getaway car. Each time, as police roadblocks and dragnets shut down highways and disrupted the most densely populated areas of the Washington region, the shadowy killer seemed to just vanish.

Only now do authorities realize how close they might have been on multiple occasions to stopping the killing earlier, or preventing it entirely. All along, it is becoming clear, suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, were just beyond the authorities' grasp - in one instance literally so, by the distance of a few feet from a pursuing police officer.

The missed opportunities stretch back nearly a year. Some resulted from bureaucratic delays, some from the judgments of individual police officers and some from the suspects' astonishing good luck.

Yesterday, authorities played down the missed chances.

"Everyone wishes that these two had been brought into custody sooner; for three weeks, we said, `We hope today's the day,'" said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "We're just thankful we were able to make these arrests."

Throughout the rampage, police and experts alike marveled at the sniper's ability to evade capture, attributing it to Houdini-like talents of escape.

In fact, the suspects now in custody made repeated stumbles, the largest of which was what eventually resulted in their arrests: a boastful phone call that led police to an earlier crime and their identities.

But that call came after nine killings - and after repeatedly missing the suspects:

In December, a domestic dispute in Bellingham, Wash., alerted immigration authorities to Malvo and his mother, Jamaicans who had illegally entered the country in Florida, said immigration officials. But, under immigration law, the two were allowed to stay in the country until a hearing on the charges.

That deportation hearing was repeatedly postponed, because of Immigration and Naturalization Service backlogs and because of at least one request for a delay by the pair or their attorneys, said INS spokesman William Strassberger.

The hearing was most recently scheduled for next month - 11 months after the original charges.

Immigration officials acknowledge that the situation should have been handled more quickly, but said the agency should be commended for having collected what proved to be a key clue in the case - Malvo's fingerprint, taken as part of the INS proceeding.

"The INS did a good job," said Benedict Ferro, the former regional INS director in Baltimore. "That was the fingerprint that solved the case."

He conceded, however, that "it's outrageous" that Malvo was allowed to stay in the country for nearly a year.

The high-powered rifle used in the shootings was sold to the suspects sometime this summer, police believe - even though a court order against Muhammad barred him from owning a gun under federal law.

Yesterday, authorities were still trying to determine how Muhammad was able to purchase the gun, a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle that has been linked by ballistics to the shootings.

For the second straight day, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spent hours studying records at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, a gun shop in Tacoma, Wash., and interviewing the owner, who told The Tacoma News Tribune that there was a "pretty good likelihood" that Muhammad bought the gun at his store.

Washington state and county officials said yesterday that under their system, the protective order brought against Muhammad by his wife at the time would have entered the state and federal databases for background checks the moment it was served to Muhammad in March 2000.

The order was made permanent at their subsequent divorce, forbidding Muhammad to own a gun.

Under federal law, a Washington gun dealer must run a background check with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System before selling a rifle, said Lt. Sean Hartsock, a commander at the Washington State Patrol. (Handgun sales also require checks with the state database, he said.)

Bull's Eye sits in an industrial neighborhood just north of downtown Tacoma, with a huge mural of a mad bull painted on its side with the slogan "Stop in and shoot the bull."

Yesterday, owner Brian Borgelt, 38, a former Army sniper trainer, told The Sun that agents were having trouble confirming where Muhammad bought the gun because Borgelt's records are not computerized.

He said he hated the thought that he might have sold the gun, which went on the market in June for between $800 and $1,200, to Muhammad.

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