Detailing what the sniper had left behind

Cryptic notes and calls described

Muhammad possibly caught on video

November 01, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Jurors heard firsthand accounts yesterday of the cryptic dialogue between the serial snipers and investigators - rambling phone conversations and letters in which the killers threatened children and demanded $10 million as part of an extortion plot.

Authorities testifying in the trial of John Allen Muhammad described how they found a four-page letter tucked inside a Ziploc bag tacked to a tree in the woods behind a Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Va., on Oct. 19 last year. Hours earlier, Jeffrey Hopper of Florida had been shot in the stomach as he left the restaurant with his wife.

Two days after that letter was found, a Baltimore FBI agent would receive a phone call demanding that police announce they have "caught the sniper like a duck in a noose" and saying that "your children are not safe." The garbled call was recorded by the agent, and then enhanced by the FBI, and it was played in court yesterday.

Prosecutors have thus far presented nine days of often emotional testimony from the relatives of those killed in 15 sniper shootings across the country. On Monday, prosecutors plan to present evidence in the final sniper shooting - that of bus driver Conrad Johnson in Aspen Hill.

Then they will move on to details of the arrest of Muhammad and his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, at a rest stop in Frederick County and, finally, to the forensic and ballistics evidence that ties the shootings together - and to Muhammad and Malvo.

Muhammad is on trial here for the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a gas station near Manassas, Va., last Oct. 9. The judge is allowing evidence from other shootings into the trial so prosecutors can show they were part of a scheme to extort money from the government.

Yesterday, prosecutors introduced into evidence the four-page letter found behind the Ponderosa, about 50 feet into the woods. The letter was written on pink paper, with five self-adhesive stars on the first page, and complained of the frustrations the authors felt in their unsuccessful attempts to start a dialogue in earlier phone calls to police.

The letter said, "Your failure to respond has cost you five lives." It went on to demand that authorities deposit $10 million into a Bank of America Visa account and said, "If trying to catch us now more important, then prepare you body bags." And the author added this ominous postscript: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

Police officers who testified yesterday said they also found in the woods a candy wrapper, which tests showed to contain Malvo's DNA, and a shell casing. Officers said they quickly gathered the evidence because of the impending rain, and they did not open the Ziploc bag with the four-page letter until almost 12 hours after the shooting.

Two blocks away from the Ponderosa is a Big Lots store, where authorities found on sale Ziploc bags, pink paper and adhesive stars identical to the ones found in the woods. Also, a surveillance tape in the store caught a picture of someone who looks like Muhammad entering the store at 4 p.m. on Oct. 19 - just four hours before the Ponderosa shooting.

That grainy video was played for jurors yesterday, and a still photo lifted from the video was passed around the jury box. Some jurors took careful notes after looking at it.

The four-page letter said the authors would try to contact authorities by calling a phone at the Ponderosa. That line was quickly rerouted to an FBI office, where Baltimore FBI Agent Jackie Dalrymple received a call at 8 a.m. on Oct. 21. The voice on the other end of the line sounded like Malvo. He said, "Don't say anything. Just listen."

Then, according to a tape of the call played in court yesterday, it sounded as if a pre-recorded message was played into the phone. Much of the 38-second call was unintelligible, but the FBI enhanced it and a transcript was made. Dalrymple read it to jurors yesterday:

"Dearest police, call me God. Do not release to the press. Five red stars. You have our terms. They are non-negotiable. If you choose option one, you will hold a press conference, stating to the media that you believe you have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose. Repeat every word exactly as you heard it. If you choose option two, be sure to remember he will not deviate. P.S. Your children are not safe."

Stolen credit card

Jurors also heard yesterday from Greyhound bus driver Jill Lynn Farrell, whose Bank of America Visa account number was the one mentioned in the four-page letter left behind the Ponderosa. Farrell testified that her wallet was stolen on March 25, 2002, while she was driving a bus from Tucson to Flagstaff, Ariz. Authorities believe it was stolen by Muhammad.

Farrell said she canceled her credit cards immediately, but somehow forgot to cancel the Bank of America Visa. Two weeks later the bank contacted her to say that her card had been fraudulently used and her account closed. The bank also sent her a list of transactions made after the card was stolen.

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