Ballistics tests tie sniper suspects to Tacoma killing

Muhammad and Malvo linked to Feb. slaying of accountant's niece

October 30, 2002|By Scott Calvert and Alec MacGillis | Scott Calvert and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

TACOMA, Wash. - Standing yesterday at the clapboard house where police now believe the accused snipers made their first kill, an Army staff sergeant clad in fatigues, a black beret and boots voiced regrets and shed tears - both for his family and the country.

If only the link had been made earlier between the death of his niece, gunned down at his front door in February, and the pair charged in this month's sniper shootings, so much heartbreak could have been avoided, said Staff Sgt. Joseph Nichols.

Police said last night that new ballistics evidence had linked John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo to the Tacoma killing of Keenya Cook, 21, though the two have not been charged.

If the pair had been arrested months ago in Cook's death, the sniper shootings in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia might never have occurred. And Nichols and his wife, Isa, who once worked as Muhammad's accountant, would not have gone eight months without a clue in Cook's seemingly inexplicable slaying.

"We feel a sense of resolution, because we didn't know who killed my niece, or why, or anything," said Nichols as he prepared to go to work at nearby Fort Lewis.

As authorities attempt to reconstruct what led to the sniper shootings, the Cook killing is emerging as a crucial marker. If, as police suspect, Muhammad or Malvo shot Cook, the murder would have been the pair's first known act of deadly violence. It is also the only instance in which the two are suspected of killing someone with whom they had a personal connection.

Tacoma police went months without leads in the death of Cook, who was hit with a single shot to the head after opening the door of her aunt and uncle's house to a visitor Feb. 16. Nothing was taken from the house. Cook's baby, who was sleeping upstairs, was unharmed.

It never occurred to the family, Joseph Nichols said yesterday, to mention Muhammad to the police, even though Isa Nichols had sided with Muhammad's former wife, Mildred, in their bitter divorce in 2000 and helped her regain custody of their three children last year.

There had been tension over the custody fight, but never any threats from Muhammad, "nothing that he did" to hint at an attack, Joseph Nichols said.

Isa Nichols, who worked as an accountant at Muhammad's auto repair shop in the mid-1990s, hadn't heard from John or Mildred Muhammad for several months before the shooting.

Nichols said he used to talk with Muhammad about religion and the Army, in which Muhammad served until 1994, without seeing any inkling of violence. "John, to me, was a regular guy," Nichols said.

It was only last week, while watching reports about the arrest of Muhammad and Malvo in the sniper shootings, that the possibility of such a link occurred to him, Nichols said.

"I said, `Oh, that's John!' The fact I knew him was a shock," Nichols said yesterday. "Less than an hour later, I was going over it in my head, and I said, `He's the only killer I know, and he was here at the time when my niece was killed.'"

Nichols called the FBI - as did a second Tacoma resident who told authorities that Muhammad and Malvo had lived with him on and off between February and April, and full time from May to July. The resident, whose name is being withheld, told investigators that he let the pair borrow two of his pistols - a .45-caliber semiautomatic and a .44-caliber Magnum.

Ballistics tests have linked the Cook shooting to the .45-caliber handgun, Tacoma police said yesterday. And the Magnum, they said, has been linked to two shots fired into Tacoma's only synagogue in early May.

Police said they have reason to believe that Muhammad was in Tacoma at the time of the Cook shooting: He was arrested there four days earlier, on a shoplifting charge.

Joseph Nichols said he and his wife still aren't sure why Muhammad, if responsible for the shooting, would have singled out their niece, rather than targeting Isa Nichols.

Police have speculated that Muhammad wanted to shoot a young member of the family in revenge for losing custody of his children.

Or maybe, Nichols said, "He just wanted to bring grief to this family and would have shot whoever came to the door."

Also yesterday, the rabbi of the Tacoma synagogue that police say was shot at between May 1 and May 4 with the Magnum lent to Muhammad and Malvo said that it was too early to say whether the shootings suggested anti-Semitism.

One bullet lodged in an exterior wall of Temple Beth El; the other crashed through several walls and crossed the chapel, entering the ark but narrowly missing the Torah scrolls.

Members of the temple, which has been vandalized several times in recent years, were startled to learn that the shooting had been linked to the men held in the Washington-area killings.

"I sat there with my mouth hanging open for a minute," said Beth El member Shelley Rozen. "I just didn't expect to see it. It was something that happened a while ago."

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