An international odyssey ends in arrests, confinement in Md.

Suspects in sniper attacks drifted around the U.S., islands in the Caribbean

October 27, 2002|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Dennis O'Brien and Scott Calvert | Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Dennis O'Brien and Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The now-infamous letter left at a sniper scene included a common Caribbean salutation: "Mr. Police."

A suspicious caller to the toll-free tip line spoke with an accent.

The trunk of the $250 Chevrolet Caprice in which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo spent their last hours of freedom had been modified so that someone could wriggle in from the back seat and covertly fire a rifle.

All of these clues suggest that Malvo, a slight, short, 17-year- old Jamaican native, could have played an active role in the 13 Washington-area shootings that killed 10 people, wounded three and terrorized millions more.

Ever since police found the pair sleeping in the car at a rest stop near Frederick, questions have arisen about the role played by the tall, sometimes charming ex-soldier and the illegal resident and runaway who became his unofficial ward during the past two years.

Investigators and defense attorneys may well spend months sorting out the crimes and the suspects, trying to determine who fired which shots and who drove the getaway car, probing their puzzling relationship for an explanation of the carnage.

Was Malvo a full-fledged partner in the rampage? Was he someone just along for the ride, or - as a lawyer may someday argue - is he simply a bright fatherless boy who become enthralled by a controlling father figure looking for a surrogate son?

Long stretches of their lives, details of how they met and the bond that kept them together - claiming to be father and son at times - remained unclear to authorities.

"There's still a lot of unanswered questions," said Jim Mattheis, a spokesman for the Police Department in Tacoma, Wash., where the two shared a house in recent months.

People who crossed paths with the two over the past two years noticed a strange affinity between the teen and the man, a clannish relationship that troubled some and impressed others.

"It was almost like the boy was his student," said Hannah Parks, a singer and songwriter who met the pair last year in a cafe in Bellingham, Wash.

"They are together always, like father and son," said Humberto Moreno, a cook at a Bellingham Christian mission where they lived.

"Usually chess players like to play other chess players. They didn't," said Garry Fleming, owner of a Bellingham cafe where the two spent hours bent over one of the restaurant's game sets.

"You could tell he [Malvo] was scared," said the sister of Muhammad's first wife. She disapproved of the strict dietary restrictions imposed on the boy.

Muhammad and Malvo are being held in Baltimore at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Supermax. Montgomery County authorities have charged them with six counts of murder. Other jurisdictions and the federal government are also weighing charges.

In the three days since his arrest, Muhammad, 41, has emerged through court records and witness accounts as a study in contradiction: an ill-tempered husband and polite stranger, a studious man with a written understanding of Arabic but no formal secondary education, a father of five who was very close to some but a deadbeat dad to others.

Malvo is much more of a mystery, a native of Jamaica who moved to Antigua and wound up in the United States three years ago.

From the evidence described by law enforcement officials, court documents and other sources, Muhammad is the most obvious suspect.

He is an expert marksman. Neighbors in the Tacoma community where Muhammad and Malvo once shared a house say that Muhammad, a Persian Gulf war veteran who achieved an "expert" rating with an Army M-16 rifle, took target practice in his back yard.

He is the one who bought the gun linked in 11 of the Maryland, Virginia and Washington shootings, and "zeroed" it to make the weapon more accurate with a scope.

And, on Sept. 21, 11 days before the sniper shootings began in Maryland, police say Muhammad was the lone shooter who killed Claudine Parker, 52, and critically wounded Kellie Adams, 24, in Montgomery, Ala.

But other clues seem to point to Malvo possibly playing a key role in the sniper attacks.

Tapes of the calls made to the police tip line reveal an accented voice that could be Malvo's, police sources said.

And Malvo is the perfect size to fit inside a trunk fitted with a gunport. At 5 feet 5 inches tall and 125 pounds, he could more comfortably crawl into the space than a 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound adult like Muhammad.

But those who know Malvo describe a quiet, polite youth who spoke up in class but deferred to Muhammad.

Malvo was described by Crissy Greenawalt, a classmate at Bellingham High School, as an attentive student who shot hoops in the gym during lunch and seemed "almost Southern" in his good manners. He had impressed his teachers with a keen intelligence that belied his years.

According to Assistant Principal Esmie McLeod at a school in Kingston, Jamaica, where Malvo was reared until 1998, his academic file belongs to an "outstanding" student who needed only to learn to sharpen his focus.

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