BELLINGHAM - FBI officials referred John Allen Muhammad to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for possible investigation in July after interviewing a witness who claimed the former soldier was trying to obtain a silencer for his gun and spoke of killing police officers, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.
Police said emphatically that nothing they received that day from the witness suggested Muhammad and a 17-year-old companion, John Lee Malvo, would commit a series of killings in the suburbs around the nation's capital.
Maryland authorities Friday night charged Muhammed and Malvo with six counts of first-degree murder each and said they would seek the death penalty against Muhammad.
A Bellingham man, Harjee Singh, said he met with authorities last summer and told them Muhammad and Malvo - whom he'd met at the local YMCA - had talked to him about a possible plan to shoot police officers.
"I raised the red flag three months ago," Singh said. "I told them what their intention was."
Asked to elaborate, Singh said, "They told me they were likely to do a sniper attack. They told me they were going to shoot to kill."
Asked by the AP if they named targets, Singh said, "Yeah, cops."
He said the pair also mentioned possibly shooting a tanker truck.
Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll said Thursday that his agency and the FBI had met with Singh last summer, but he would not discuss the nature of what Singh said at that meeting - except that it involved Muhammad and Malvo.
Bellingham police and the FBI met again with Singh on Wednesday, Carroll said.
"There was nothing he told us three months ago or last night that would lead us to believe Mr. Muhammad or Mr. Malvo would have the kind of future that led them to where they are today," Carroll said.
One law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while the FBI had doubts about the credibility of some parts of Singh's story, it made the referral to ATF, which enforces the nation's gun laws, and also encouraged local law enforcement to consider the threat against police officers.
"We looked at this as an officer safety issue," the source said. The official said he did not know what ATF and local police did after the referrals.
At Washington State Patrol headquarters in Tumwater, spokesman Lt. Mark Couey said there was no record of a warning issued by that office.
In Seattle, FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs declined comment.
Bellingham is proving to be an important location in the investigation of the sniper shootings.
A routine fingerprinting procedure on an immigration call there may have been crucial to unlocking the sniper case.
Malvo's fingerprint was discovered at the scene of a deadly shooting at an Alabama liquor store.
That fingerprint was traced back to an INS investigation of Malvo and his mother while they were in Bellingham, which allowed police in the sniper case to put names and faces to the shootings that had terrorized the Washington, D.C., region for three weeks.
Muhammad and Malvo lived at a Bellingham homeless shelter in late 2001, telling people they were father and son.