How `blue Caprice y'all are looking for' is found

Last fatal shooting, arrest of sniper suspects detailed

November 04, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The final scene of last fall's serial sniper ordeal played out on a dark, quiet night at a Frederick County rest stop. Outfitted in black flight suits and body armor capable of stopping a high-powered rifle bullet, FBI agents stormed a blue Chevrolet Caprice, not knowing what dangers they might face.

After smashing the tinted windows and opening the doors, they found the two suspects in the shootings - John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo - and a cache of evidence, including a Bushmaster rifle, walkie-talkies, earplugs and a brown glove that matched one found at the scene of the final killing.

Those items, and scores of others found in the car, were offered into evidence yesterday at the Muhammad trial as the prosecution began making explicit connections between the attacks and Muhammad. Prosecutors have not been able to place the rifle in his hands during the shootings, but yesterday they placed it in his car.

The .223-caliber Bushmaster was taken out of a box yesterday and put in the hands of two witnesses, both of whom identified it as the one they found behind the back seat of the Caprice. It was found in the fire mode, with the safety off, and held a live round of ammunition, said one law enforcement agent. Ballistic evidence to be presented in coming days will link the rifle to eight of the 10 sniper killings, prosecutors say.

In the past two weeks of testimony, witnesses described lost and stolen items that were found in the Caprice and presented yesterday. Among them: Paul LaRuffa's Sony laptop computer, stolen when he was shot outside his Clinton restaurant, and a day planner that apparently belonged to Hong Im Ballenger, who was killed outside a Baton Rouge, La., beauty store.

Prosecutors began the day with last fall's final sniper shooting - that of bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, in Aspen Hill. His widow, Denise, testified that she last saw her husband at 4:45 a.m. Oct. 22 last year, when he left for work. When she got up at 6:30, she turned on the TV and saw crime scene tape around a Montgomery County bus.

"I kept calling his cell phone - 10 or 15 times - and he never answered," she testified. She would later receive a call from her mother-in-law, saying that Conrad Johnson had been shot. Johnson became teary when recounting that her husband was alive when she arrived at Suburban Hospital but died before she saw him. He had bled to death on the operating table.

Prosecutor James A. Willett asked her how she told her two boys, ages 7 and 15. "They knew," she said, "when I received that phone call that morning, that it was their father."

Conrad Johnson was struck in the lower right part of his chest with a bullet from a high-velocity rifle, testified Maryland's deputy chief medical examiner, Mary G. Ripple. She said it tore through his diaphragm and damaged his liver, pancreas, and major veins and arteries. The bullet did not exit his body.

Muhammad is charged with murder and is on trial in the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Manassas, Va., gas station. But 15 other shootings from several states have been allowed into evidence because the prosecution is building a case that Muhammad and Malvo were attempting to intimidate the public and influence the government.

Prosecutors said yesterday that they plan to rest their case early next week, while defense attorneys said they plan to present two or three days of witnesses. That means the jury could begin deliberations in about two weeks.

Yesterday, investigators who searched the woods across from the bus on which Johnson was shot said they found key pieces of evidence - a left-handed brown glove whose mate would turn up in the Caprice and another note in a plastic bag, this one speared on a tree branch.

The two-page note began with the snipers' salutation, well known to authorities by then, "For you Mr. Police, Call me God." Apparently frustrated that authorities had not followed the demands of an earlier note that requested $10 million, the snipers wrote in this letter, "Your incompetence has cost you another life."

The letter repeated the threat to children made in the earlier letter - "Your children are not safe" - and went on: "Can you hear us now! Do not play these childish games with us. You know our demands. Your choice. Thank you." Twelve stars were affixed to the note, and an arrow was drawn from one star to the words next person.

The next day, after tracing a fingerprint left on a weapons catalog at a Baton Rouge shooting to Malvo, authorities began narrowing their search to Malvo and Muhammad. A bulletin was put out for the pair's blue 1990 Caprice, bearing New Jersey tags NDA 21Z, late on Oct. 23. The information was quickly picked up by the media.

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