The cross-country death toll that police attribute to an Army veteran and his teen-age traveling companion reached 13 yesterday as authorities in Baton Rouge, La., linked the rifle used in the Washington-area sniper slayings to the unsolved killing of a beauty shop worker in late September.
Law enforcement officials say the number could continue to climb. Police across the country are reviewing unsolved crimes to see if they could be the work of the two suspects in the sniper case who authorities say left a deadly trail in five states and Washington, D.C., as they traveled from the West Coast to Maryland.
The new discoveries could enable police to solve cases gone cold, but they further complicate the work of Justice Department officials in Washington, who are determining where John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, should stand trial first. The pair now face a long list of state and federal charges, which could bring the death penalty.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said investigators "are not ruling out" the possibility that other people could be involved in the shootings or that the two suspects had committed other crimes.
"We will proceed deliberatively, cautiously and not jump to any conclusions," Ashcroft said in Washington. "The facts and the evidence will determine the final outcome, and we intend to follow the facts wherever they may lead."
Louisiana - Muhammad's home state - became the latest to stake a claim to the suspects.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade said first-degree murder warrants were issued yesterday for Muhammad and Malvo in the killing of Hong Im Ballenger, 45, on Sept. 23 - two days after a similar attack linked to the pair in Alabama and about a week before the start of the sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area.
Englade said ballistics evidence linked the .223-caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle found in the blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice where the two men were sleeping when they were arrested last week in Maryland to the Baton Rouge robbery and shooting in the parking lot of a Beauty Depot Supply store.
Investigators said Ballenger had left work about 6:30 p.m. when she was shot and killed. A witness told police that a young man, believed to be Malvo, took Ballenger's purse after the shot was fired and ran out of the parking lot, according to the arrest warrants.
Another witness told police that a dark-blue vehicle, parked in a vacant field across from the shopping center, picked up the fleeing suspect about a block away, according to the warrant.
The case initially stymied investigators. But after reports about the same .223-caliber evidence turning up at the scenes of the sniper slayings on the East Coast, they began looking into a potential connection. In addition to ballistics evidence, yesterday's warrants said investigators searching the Caprice found receipts from two Baton Rouge stores that put the suspects in town at the time of Ballenger's death.
A federal law enforcement official said investigators are awaiting the results of ballistics testing in one other Louisiana case that they think could be linked to the two men: "This has become a nationwide investigation, and it's likely going to encompass several more areas," the official said.
In Maryland yesterday, Prince George's County prosecutors brought attempted-murder charges against Muhammad and Malvo in connection with the shooting Oct. 7 outside a Bowie school that left a 13-year-old boy wounded.
Justice Department officials are expected to determine within days whether the men will stand trial in state courts or in federal court. Both are in federal custody in Baltimore for now, where all proceedings against Malvo have been conducted in secret because of his age.
The Sun and The Washington Post have filed petitions in U.S. District Court in Baltimore seeking to open the court hearings for Malvo. Baltimore attorney Joshua R. Treem, who is leading Malvo's defense, objected in court papers, saying federal laws are designed to "protect the confidentiality of all juveniles, even unpopular ones."
A hearing on the newspapers' request, which is expected to be joined by other news organizations, is scheduled for today.
Yesterday's announcement of charges in Baton Rouge came as police in Montgomery, Ala., said the rifle used in the Washington-area sniper shootings also was used in the Sept. 21 liquor store robbery and killing that helped lead authorities to the suspects.
Montgomery Police Chief John H. Wilson scheduled a news conference for today to discuss the evidence findings. Muhammad and Malvo were charged last week with capital murder in the case.
Early this week, police in Tacoma, Wash., said ballistics tests linked the suspects to a February slaying there and to a shooting at a synagogue. The two have not been charged in those cases.