Trial is reminder of missed chances

Untapped clues haunt sniper victims' kin, police

`Everyone is kicking themselves'

October 27, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The map book - stolen from the Reisterstown Road branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library - could have led investigators straight to their prey.

When police searched the parking lot opposite the gas station in Manassas, Va., where last year's serial sniper killed a seventh victim, they found a map of Baltimore that held fingerprints of both suspects, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. But that clue, like many others, went untapped until much later, after three more people had died.

With Muhammad's capital murder trial under way in Virginia Beach, the victims' families and others involved in the case are being hit with new reminders of one of the most painful aspects of the shootings: that investigators missed many chances to halt the sniper's reign of terror earlier.

Perhaps the starkest new example of this arose at the shooting scene where the map book was found. A police officer testified last week that, in the frenetic moments after the fatal shot was fired, he encountered Muhammad at the Manassas scene. But Muhammad bluffed his way through a police dragnet with a blatant fib that the officer didn't catch.

"Everyone is kicking themselves after the fact," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. "There are these close encounters that will have people questioning the [investigation]."

In any drawn-out investigation it is possible to find things that, in retrospect, could have been done differently. But the sheer number of missed chances in the sniper hunt has many, including some of the victims' family members, wondering why the suspects weren't caught sooner.

Even before last week's testimony, the list of known lost opportunities was lengthy. A warning to the FBI in Washington state about Muhammad's violent threats three months before the shootings was ignored. Receptionists handling the sniper tip line spurned the suspects when they called to communicate with authorities. A witness report of the suspects' blue Chevrolet Caprice near the scene of the shooting Oct. 3 of Pascal Charlot went unexplored.

"All of us who hear of the missteps of authorities are very disappointed," said Charles-August Charlot, a cousin of Charlot, a 72-year-old Haitian immigrant shot in Northwest Washington, D.C. "It is disturbing for [everyone], not just the families. How come the police had chances and ignored them?"

The map book was found by Prince William County police Officer Steven A. Bailey in the parking lot at the Bob Evans restaurant across from the Manassas Sunoco where Dean H. Meyers, 53, was shot Oct. 9. Ralph Daigneau, a crime scene investigator for the Prince William Police Department, testified last week that he was given the book the next day and lifted usable prints from it.

Fingerprint match

But it was not until after the suspects' arrest Oct. 24 that those prints were linked to Malvo and Muhammad. A fingerprint examiner with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified that he received the prints Aug. 20 and matched them to the suspects.

Left unanswered in court was why the prints hadn't been sent through national databases immediately after they were found. Asked about the timing Friday, Prince William County prosecutor Paul B. Ebert said he didn't know when the first match between the prints and the suspects was made.

In an interview last week, Prince William Sgt. Kim D. Shinn said that the map had stayed in the department's hands during the investigation and that its importance wasn't immediately recognized.

"At that crime scene, we collected tons of evidence; pieces of paper; scraps of this, that or the other thing," she said. "Once it's collected, it has to be identified and packaged. It's a large task."

Ross, the criminologist, said the map book may have been overlooked initially because investigators were focusing so heavily on telephoned tips, rather than on physical evidence. The failure to focus on the book may also have been one example of clues being lost in the cracks in a far-flung investigation involving a dozen law enforcement agencies, he said.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the map prints.

Had the prints been run through the system immediately, they may have raised some flags for investigators. Malvo's prints were in a federal database as a result of an immigration violation, and Muhammad's were on file from his service in the military.

But Thomas P. Mauriello, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, said the prints may not have produced a match to the two men, given the limitations of combing vast databases for links.

If a match had been made, it is possible that investigators would have taken notice that a 41-year-old former Army sharpshooter who had been overheard making threats in Washington state was at the scene of a shooting with a 17-year-old boy who was not his son.

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