Fingerprint on stolen map said to link defendant, sniper scene

Muhammad holds his own questioning witnesses during Va. murder trial

October 22, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - On the night that a sniper fired from the shadows and fatally shot Dean H. Meyers at a Manassas gas station, police found nearby a map of Baltimore that had been stolen from the Enoch Pratt Free Library and bore fingerprints of the men accused in the killing.

The second day of testimony in the trial of John Allen Muhammad, suspected of killing 13 people in a cross-country rampage that climaxed in the Washington region, revealed more near-misses in which police allowed the sniper suspects to slip through their fingers during frenetic days last fall.

It was also another day of testimony guided along by Muhammad, who at the start of the trial fired his lawyers and took his defense into his own hands.

Although he has no formal legal training, Muhammad vigorously questioned witnesses and argued legal technicalities. But he also made an occasional blunder and at times appeared awkward during his cross-examinations of witnesses.

"It's a difficult situation," said Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. "Mr. Muhammad made this decision and we're going to live with it. Mr. Muhammad appears to be competently representing himself, he appears to be asking the appropriate questions and he appears to understand everything that's going on."

Chief among the evidence presented by the prosecution yesterday was the Baltimore map book, found in a restaurant lot where a blue Chevrolet Caprice was parked directly across from the gas station where Meyers was fatally shot Oct. 9, 2002.

The book contained one fingerprint that matched Muhammad and six that matched his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, according to an analysis by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

It would not be until almost two weeks later, when authorities linked a fingerprint found on a weapons magazine at a crime scene in Montgomery, Ala., to a print Malvo had given to immigration officials months before, that authorities realized who they were looking for.

The map book was found by Steven Bailey of the Prince William County police force, who in the confusion after the shooting was ordered to stand sentry at the exit of the Bob Evans restaurant across the street from the gas station. He asked those leaving the parking lot whether they saw or heard anything, and he took down their names and license plate numbers.

"People became irate, and my sergeant said if they didn't hear or see anything, we didn't need to write down their tag numbers," Bailey testified. So when Muhammad rolled up in a Caprice about 30 minutes after the shooting, the officer did not take down his information. But he did ask him several questions.

"I asked the defendant if he had heard or seen anything," Bailey said. "He stated he did not. He said he was coming home from vacation, came off [Interstate] 66 onto [Route] 234 and the police directed him into the parking lot. He was very polite and very courteous."

On cross-examination, Muhammad asked the two-year veteran officer if it made any sense that police would have directed him into the parking lot so soon after a man had been shot across the street.

"I didn't catch on," the officer said. "I wish I had."

Muhammad proved able during several sharp cross-examinations. When one man testified that he witnessed a shooting after leaving a restaurant, Muhammad asked him how much he had to drink that night.

But Muhammad's questioning also backfired on occasion. He asked the head of the collection management department at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library whether the map book found near the Manassas shooting had a device that would set off a security system if it was taken out of the library.

The woman, Lynn Stonesifer, carefully examined the map and said she was surprised to find that it had no such security device - perhaps giving jurors the impression it would have been easy to steal.

Stonesifer said the library got a call last Thursday from the FBI asking whether it was missing a map book. Library officials ran the map's bar code through their records. Stonesifer said the map had last been used at the Reisterstown Road branch on June 3, 2002, and was on the current inventory - meaning officials didn't know it was missing.

When Stonesifer examined the map in court yesterday, she said its bar code sticker included the name of the Pratt library and another sticker on it read "RST," short for the Reisterstown branch.

The map was among 50 pieces of evidence introduced by the prosecution yesterday. Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the death of Meyers, 53, a civil engineer from Gaithersburg who was shot at a Manassas Sunoco station. The trial was moved to Virginia Beach to find impartial jurors.

The jury heard gripping testimony yesterday from several witnesses, including the man who authorities believe was the snipers' first victim in Maryland.

Paul J. LaRuffa was closing his Italian restaurant in Clinton Sept. 5, 2002, when he was attacked as he got into his car.

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