Snipers Terrorize US Capital Region

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 4, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

HE WAS THE LANKY, good-looking star football player at his local high school in Baton Rouge, La. People close to John Allen Williams still recall his ready smile and firm handshake.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 4, 2002

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 4, 2002. Partner content is not updated.HE WAS THE LANKY, good-looking star football player at his local high school in Baton Rouge, La. People close to John Allen Williams still recall his ready smile and firm handshake.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 4, 2002

Snipers Terrorize US Capital Region

HE WAS THE LANKY, good-looking star football player at his local high school in Baton Rouge, La. People close to John Allen Williams still recall his ready smile and firm handshake. But that was back in the 1970s - now, family and friends of the 41-year-old who'd changed his name to John Allen Muhammad are trying to understand how he became a suspected mass murderer. If he's guilty, he's clearly a conflicted man. At one point during the three-week-long killing spree, which claimed the lives of 10 people, the perp taunted police, telling them, "I am God." Yet this same man called one priest to pass on information, and unsuccessfully tried to contact another - perhaps in an attempt to confess. And in a phone call to investigators, he pointed them toward an earlier murder, one that actually took place in Montgomery, Ala. It may have marked the real start of the rampage - and ultimately provided the lead that resulted in Muhammad's capture.

In the pantheon of American mass murderers - among them Charles Whitman, who shot and killed 16 people in 1966, 14 of them from the top of a tower in Austin, Tex. - it won't be the sheer number of deaths Muhammad will be remembered for. Instead, there is the fear he struck into the densely populated Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington; the fact that he allegedly worked with a young accomplice, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, a native of Jamaica; the cryptic messages he supposedly sent to police as the two terrorized the area from a battered Chevy Caprice; and the cold randomness of his killing.

And it was random, for the most part. James D. Martin, 55, the first victim, was gunned down in a parking lot on Oct. 2. Five more people were murdered the next day, including Sarah Ramos, 34, as she sat on a bench outside a post office. The last victim, bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, was killed on Oct. 22 as he stood perfectly framed for the sniper in the doorway of his bus.

In trying to understand John Allen Muhammad, investigators and forensic psychiatrists may start with his military record. He grew up in Louisiana, serving in the National Guard there from 1978-1985. In 1985, the same year that he and his first wife, Carol Williams, divorced, he converted to Islam and joined the army. He was trained as a combat engineer, but he also became so proficient at shooting an M-16 automatic rifle that he earned the military's highest marksmanship badge. He served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was decorated for his efforts. But he also showed signs of a violent temper: in one incident during his National Guard days in Louisiana, he was charged with disobeying a lawful order; in another, with punching a sergeant.

He left the army in 1994, and moved to Tacoma, Wash. There, he again served in the National Guard - outwardly, he appeared happy. But his personal life was disintegrating. Employment was a problem: he tried operating a martial arts school - it eventually failed - then drifted from job to job. He was a follower of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (he worked as a security guard during the Million Man March in Washington in 1995). His marriage to his second wife, Mildred Muhammad, failed, and they separated in 1999.

It's not yet clear when or how they met, but at some point Muhammad became involved with Uma James and her son John Lee Malvo, from Jamaica and illegally in the U.S. In 1997 Muhammad enrolled the boy, then 12, in his martial arts school. During the same period Malvo enrolled in a high school in nearby Bellingham. Without an official transcript, however, school officials became suspicious. Malvo was fingerprinted - an indelible mark that would eventually prove invaluable to police.

Muhammad and Malvo later lived together in a rented duplex in a working-class section of Tacoma, where neighbours said they held target practice sessions, firing a rifle at a tree stump. They surfaced in Baton Rouge last July, dropping in on some of Muhammad's relatives. On Sept. 10 they paid $250 for the old Chevy Caprice in Trenton, N.J. At some point they apparently stopped in Montgomery, Ala. - last week police there laid charges against the pair for the Sept. 21 killing of a woman during a liquor store robbery. And then they headed north to the Washington area, where, police allege, they prepared for their murder spree. The back seat of the Caprice was modified to fold down flat, giving full access to the trunk. There, police say, they built a special platform to support a tripod for a Bushmaster rifle. Crude gun ports drilled into the rear of the car were just large enough to aim through, fix a target in the crosshairs, and fire.

As the snipers went about their deadly business, millions changed the patterns of their lives. Dozens of schools locked down; people were so frightened, they stopped going shopping. Those who did often ran in zigzags from parking lots to mall entrances. Some paid others to take their cars to the gas station. But the killers may have started to unravel. On Oct. 17, police say, Muhammad apparently called their hotline, identifying himself as the sniper. "I am God!" he declared. When the FBI trainee on the other end did not seem to be suitably impressed, Muhammad shouted: "Don't you know who you're dealing with? Check out the murder-robbery in Montgomery if you don't believe me."

The snipers would soon make contact with police again. Two days later, after a man was shot in the chest as he left a restaurant in Ashland, Va., a long, handwritten letter, wrapped in plastic and nailed to a tree, was left behind. The letter threatened the lives of children and demanded a $10-million payment. But it featured unusual sentence structure and details. On the first page, it said: "For you Mr. Police. Call me God." Beneath that someone had drawn a line of five stars. On another page was the line: "If we give you our word, that is what takes place. Word is bond." An FBI analyst quickly concluded that the phrasing and marks could have a Jamaican connection - a Jamaican band called Five Stars has a song containing the line "word is bond."

Clues - but what to do with them? Because six of the murders had taken place in Montgomery County, Md., task force detectives first thought that was the reference in the first phone call. But then came a phone call to a Catholic priest in Ashland, Va., clarifying the location as Montgomery, Ala. A check with the Alabama State Police revealed that on Sept. 21, two women were closing up a liquor store in Montgomery when a young black man brazenly held them up and then shot them both. One died on the spot, the other survived. A police officer chased the man; he couldn't catch him, but was able to retrieve a catalogue the gunman dropped. It advertised guns - and on one page was a fingerprint that, investigators discovered, belonged to a mysterious Jamaican teenager named John Lee Malvo.

An FBI team swooped down on Bellingham, where they learned about the Malvo-Muhammad connection. Further investigation revealed that Muhammad had recently been given temporary New Jersey licence plates for a Chevy Caprice. On Oct. 23, police put out an APB for the men and the car. Less than three hours later, the vehicle was spotted in a rest area on Interstate 70 in Maryland. A truck driver blocked the entrance until a SWAT team's arrival. Police arrested the two, who had been sleeping. Ballistic tests soon showed that most of the victims had been shot with the Bushmaster rifle that was found in the car.

Some critics suggest that police might well have caught the snipers sooner if they had not been blinded by erroneous evidence - including the almost ubiquitous reports of a white van at the scene of the shootings. There was also the expert opinion that proved totally wrong: profilers had persuaded investigators they were looking for one man, a white loner in his early 20s, probably with a crewcut. And one of the most troubling stumbles of all: after one of the Oct. 3 shootings, a witness saw a Caprice leaving the scene. On Oct. 8, police approached a Caprice on a Baltimore street and found Muhammad sleeping in the vehicle. They told him to move on.

With Muhammad and Malvo now under arrest, experts continue to struggle with the motivation behind the killings. Some point to Muhammad's military training, saying it may have desensitized him; a number of other mass murderers in the U.S., including Whitman, were veterans. Others raise the possibility that Muhammad could suffer from Gulf War syndrome, which can lead to violent outbursts. But for the people who lived in fear of a sniper's bullet for three weeks, those are secondary issues. "I'm so relieved not to feel like a target anymore," said Margaret Mitchell, 32, in Maryland. She celebrated the arrests by going shopping - for Halloween.

Maclean's November 4, 2002