April 23, 2001: True story – a kidnapper on the run walks into Pierce County District Court and applies for a legal name change.
His name is John Allen Williams. He walks like the soldier he used to be. He’s 40 years old, lean and fit, handsome and black. He’s been dodging the law for more than a year, weaving in and out of the country, hiding his three children from his estranged wife.
He probably doesn’t know as he walks into the courtroom, but a warrant for the children – a writ of habeas corpus, entitling sheriff’s deputies to break down doors – has been active for more than a year, and it has his name on it.
However, the warrant is buried in a divorce file in Superior Court – the same town, a different bureaucratic universe. This is District Court, where all the small stuff happens, including name changes. It’s another ordinary day.
Williams fills out a few forms, waits his turn, steps up when called, answers pro forma questions from a judge, and it’s done: Name change granted.
The process takes all of 90 seconds, so easy he laughs and thanks the court, flashing a smile that melts women.
He walks out with a new name: John Allen Muhammad. In the next 18 months, with the aid of his teen protégé, Lee Boyd Malvo, he authors the deaths of at least 15 people from Tacoma to Washington, D.C. History will know him as the Beltway Sniper.
NO ONE NOTICED
No one argues that the sniper slayings could have been prevented if Muhammad had been stopped that April day. If anything, the deaths might have started sooner.
Losing the children, according to historical accounts, lit Muhammad’s homicidal fuse and fueled a coast-to-coast killing spree. The spark came in August 2001, when an alert state worker spotted the warrant Muhammad had dodged in Pierce County four months earlier.
Muhammad’s children were seized by deputies in Bellingham and returned to their mother. A September 2001 hearing in Pierce County Superior Court separated the father from his children for good.
Muhammad is long gone – arrested Oct. 24, 2002, later sentenced to death for his crimes and executed in 2009. Yet the day in District Court lingers.
He walked straight into the jaws of the county legal system that issued the writ of habeas corpus – a demand to acquire his kidnapped children by force – and no one noticed.
Could it happen today, more than a decade later?
Answer: Maybe, maybe not. The warrant might get spotted, but the law might have no answer.
Courtroom technology and records are more sophisticated now. Background checks through multiple systems are a matter of routine, court administrators say. It was different in 2001.
“The judge would not have known at that time,” said Chuck Ramey, district court administrator. “We just didn’t know – it’s very clear that the judge did not know.”
Fast-forward to 2012. Suppose another kidnapper walks into a courtroom under the same circumstances, seeking a name change while an active warrant seeks his children.
The warrant overlooked a decade ago would almost certainly pop up on someone’s computer screen today, Ramey said. A judge, handed the records by staff, would see it.
That could lead a judge to deny the name-change petition – but it wouldn’t necessarily lead to an arrest on the spot. The kidnapper might be able to walk away, denied a name change but otherwise unhindered.
“It would depend on the facts,” District Court Judge Pat O’Malley said. “Just because there’s a warrant out and you’re in a courtroom, doesn’t mean that you’re gonna get arrested or picked up.”
KIDNAPPING AND A THREAT
Spring 2000: Mildred Williams hadn’t seen her children since March 27. Her husband, John, had picked them up for a weekend visit and never returned. She called police, but they filed the initial report as custodial interference in the context of a divorce case – not a kidnapping.
Mildred’s 2009 book, “Scared Silent,” recounts her search. She called relatives. She called police. She called the FBI. She called police again. Nothing seemed to move the system.
On May 16, she collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. Somehow, her husband knew. He called her room.
“Why don’t you let the children call me?” she asked.
John yelled at her through the phone.
“We don’t always get what we want, do we?”
John had also called her mother and said he intended to kill Mildred. She told the story to a Tacoma police officer.
“He can make a weapon out of anything,” she said. “He already said he was going to kill me.”
She left the hospital and went into hiding, staying at a Tacoma shelter for abused women. She sought a protection order. The children never left her mind.
She took a course to become a paralegal. If the system wouldn’t help her find her children, she’d do it herself.
Armed with new knowledge, she added a filing to her divorce case – a petition for custody. The court commissioner threw it out because John hadn’t been served with the papers, which was maddening. John couldn’t be served because he was in hiding – but he was also looking for Mildred, who was hiding from him.
She sought help from private investigators and got nowhere. She filed a new custody petition, with notice published in local newspapers. This time the court approved it. The next day – June 22, 2000 – she sought and obtained the writ of habeas corpus.
Craig Adams, then the legal counsel to the Pierce County sheriff, now a county court commissioner, recalls working with Mildred at that time.
“I remember helping out Mrs. Muhammad on some of that stuff when she came in,” he said.
The help didn’t help. John was everywhere and nowhere. Records and reports of his movements during the period say he was traveling back and forth between Tacoma and the Caribbean.
“If I remember, we couldn’t find him,” Adams said.
According to Mildred’s book, police tried to set up a sting operation at one point, but John slipped away. Through the grapevine of friends and relatives, she heard he was giving conflicting stories about the children’s whereabouts: The kids were out of the country, in the Caribbean or Canada, or just around the corner.
A SIMPLE MATTER
Though information access has changed since 2001, the law is pretty much the same. Obtaining a legal name change in Washington is a simple matter. Statewide, 7,506 people sought name changes in 2011 – 776 in Pierce County.
The relevant state statute (RCW 4.24.130) fills half a page. Restrictions are few. The only name-changers who run into trouble are ex-convicts under state supervision and registered sex offenders, who must jump through several hoops. Law enforcement officials can deny their petitions.
Name changes can be whimsical; Ramey, the court administrator, recalls petitions from people who wanted to be called Elvis Presley and Megatron. In other cases, the process is more serious: a spouse fleeing an abusive partner, seeking to disappear.
The system is easy to abuse. Leon Letroy Anderson, a serial name-changer from the South Sound, used the process to defraud banks, setting up multiple accounts under different identities.
Anderson legally changed his name at least 12 times between 2000 and 2008, according to federal court records. At least one of those name changes was granted in Pierce County District Court. In 2009, he was convicted on multiple counts of bank fraud.
MULTIPLE CHANGES POSSIBLE
The state name-change law doesn’t bar multiple name changes. It also makes no provision for fugitives. Technically, a criminal warrant provides no basis for denying a name change, though court staff members are likely to see it and flag it.
Under those circumstances, a name-change petition likely would be dead on arrival.
“It would never get to a judge,” O’Malley said flatly.
In Muhammad’s case, the habeas corpus writ for his children might not have triggered an alarm, even if the District Court judge had been aware of it at the time. The warrant was a civil filing in a divorce case – an important distinction that still applies today.
“This thing provides the officers the authority to seize the kids and take them into custody – but it doesn’t provide just a generalized power to arrest Muhammad,” said John Strait, a law professor at Seattle University who examined the court records at The News Tribune’s request. “He’s not technically the target of the writ; the children are.”
For Mildred Williams, long months followed without progress in 2000 and 2001. The children’s birthdays came and went. She secretly moved to Maryland. She kept calling the FBI and Tacoma police. She handed copies of her habeas corpus writ to every authority she could think of.
Every time, she ran into stone walls of procedure. She should fly back to Seattle and file a missing-person report, one FBI agent told her. Another agent, this one in Seattle, told her to come back to Tacoma. If her husband was looking for her, as she said, they could use her as a decoy to lure him out.
“Excuse me; you don’t understand,” she recalled telling the agent. “This is going to be a head shot. HE IS GOING TO SHOOT ME IN THE HEAD! By the time you figure out where the bullet came from, I’ll be dead, and where will my children be?”
The agent said he was only trying to help.
Then came the moment of April 23, 2001, and John’s appearance in district court. Mildred was unaware. The proceedings were recorded on tape. The pro tem judge that day was Molly Davis. The questions were standard, still in use today.
LYING IN COURT
Davis: OK, Mr. Williams. You’re petitioning to have your name changed?
Williams: Yes, ma’am.
Davis: What is your current legal name?
Williams: My current legal name is John Allen Williams.
Davis: OK. And what is the new name by which you wish to be known?
Williams: John Allen Muhammad.
Davis: And why do you desire to be known by this new name?
Williams: For religion purposes.
It was partly true. Williams was a Nation of Islam convert. So was his wife. Informally, he’d gone by John Muhammad for at least two years.
But he was interested in more than religion. His greater need was legal identification. On the run with his three children, he made money by making phony IDs for others and helping them move into the United States from the Caribbean. He used multiple names and identities.
Only nine days earlier, he’d been stopped at Miami International Airport with two Jamaican women carrying forged documents. The authorities had released him.
Davis: Are you changing your name for any other reason?
Williams: No, ma’am.
Davis: Are you changing your name to defraud or mislead any person or creditor?
Williams: No, ma’am.
Davis: Are you involved in any legal proceeding other than this name change?
Williams: No, ma’am.
The second answer was tricky. The third was a flat lie. Muhammad was involved in a legal proceeding – his divorce, active in Superior Court for two years. The file contained the writ of habeas corpus. Davis, the pro tem judge, didn’t know it was there.
The system is imperfect. People lie in court all the time, O’Malley said. They’re not supposed to, but they do it. The court systems catch more lies today, but not all of them.
A decade later, the process is a bit different. According to Ramey, court analysts run two types of background checks in the course of handling a name-change petition.
The first is a criminal background check that looks for past convictions in the lower and higher courts. That system was in place in 2001, as John stood in the courtroom – but he had no criminal convictions.
The second check is an individual case history that pulls data from Superior Courts across the state, including civil (noncriminal) cases. That check was not used in 2001; it was implemented several years later.
“We were not doing that run then,” Ramey said. “We did not do that in advance at that time. Today, the search is conducted in advance, so the judge would have known that he was lying.”
Even today, however, the ultimate decision would rest with a judge. Nothing in state law would require Muhammad’s arrest or detention on the writ for his children.
“I don’t think it gives the sheriff authority to just bust Muhammad,” said Strait, the law professor.
O’Malley, the District Court judge, figures the name-change petition likely would be denied on the spot in such a circumstance. As for detaining the petitioner, he’s less certain.
Adams, the court commissioner, handles name-change petitions regularly. He sees the background checks in the current system, and he’s especially attentive when children are involved.
Asked how he’d respond to the case of the hypothetical kidnapper tied to a warrant, he answered instinctively. He’d call the sheriff’s office.
“Hey, we got your guy up here,” he said, imagining the conversation. “You wanna come get him?”
‘Convicted of a felony?’
Davis: And have you ever been convicted of a felony?
Williams: No, ma’am.
Davis: Are you under supervision of any probation department that requires you to report a change of address?
Williams: No, ma’am.
Davis: I’ll go ahead and grant your name change, then.
Williams: Thank you.
Davis: You can go back out to the front counter to get your paperwork out front. OK?
Williams: So I don’t need to come up there?
Davis: No, you don’t.
Clerk: They’ll come get it, they’ll come get the filing.
Williams: I don’t need to show you no paperwork? I don’t need to bring no witnesses up or anything like that? We can take this on ’til five o’clock if you want.
Williams was laughing a little now, teasing the workers, turning on the charm. The judge and the clerk laughed with him.
Clerk: No, we can’t. We need to go home, thank you.
Davis: Yours is pretty simple.
Williams: (Laughing) I feel cheated.
Davis: These are fairly routine, so …
Williams: (Exiting) All right, thank you.
With that, he was gone.
‘THEY FOUND MY BABIES!’
Muhammad wasn’t laughing four months later in Bellingham. He had his children with him, and he’d applied for state assistance. A state fraud investigator, spotting irregularities in the application, ran the children’s names through a court systems check and found the writ of habeas corpus.
That information – the same information overlooked in Pierce County – reached Tom McCarthy, a sheriff’s detective in Bellingham, who rounded up the children.
According to an account of the moment by reporters from The Washington Post, Muhammad looked at McCarthy, his jaw tight, and asked why he wasn’t being arrested.
McCarthy said he didn’t have a warrant for him.
The detective had Mildred’s phone number in Maryland. He called her.
“They found my babies!” she shouted. “They found my babies!”
He put them on the phone, one by one. The youngest, Taalibah, was first.
“Hi, Mommy,” she said.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486