FREDERICK, Md. - One of America’s most extraordinary manhunts culminated Thursday in the arrests of an Army veteran and a teenager, asleep at a roadside rest stop — perpetrators, authorities believe, of a bloody, three-week sniping spree that left 10 people dead and multitudes paralyzed by fear.
John Allen Muhammad, 41, — arrested with John Lee Malvo, 17 — appeared in court, and was ordered held. Neither has been charged with the shootings, but law-enforcement sources told The Associated Press that investigators were certain they had cracked the case.
A gun found in the suspects’ car — a Bushmaster rifle — has been linked by ballistics to 11 of the 13 shootings, said Michael Bouchard, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The AR-15 is the civilian form of the M-16 military assault rifle. As a soldier, Muhammad received a Marksmanship Badge with expert rating — the highest of three ratings — in use of the M-16, according to Army records. Police also found a scope and tripod in the car, the official said.
Never miss a local story.
In handcuffs and a green prison jumpsuit, Muhammad was ordered held without bail when he appeared in federal court in Baltimore . The courthouse was patrolled by a dozen federal marshals armed with high-powered rifles.
Muhammad is due back in court Tuesday on a federal firearms charge stemming from a 2000 court order in Tacoma, Wash., that barred Muhammad from harassing or using force against an ex-wife and children.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Beth P. Gesner made no mention of the sniper killings. Muhammad spoke little during the 10-minute hearing. When Gesner asked him if he understood the charge, he quietly answered, “Yes, ma’am.”
Malvo is considered by the court to be a juvenile, and all of his proceedings are closed. Police said he was being held as a material witness.
The suspects, it seems, might have been tripped up by their own arrogance; authorities said they received a call on the task force tip line taking responsibility for the sniper attacks and for an incident in Montgomery, Ala.
Evidence from a Sept. 21 robbery attempt outside a liquor store in Montgomery, which killed one employee and wounded another, then led police to Malvo and Muhammad.
Two senior federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators hadn’t ruled out other accomplices, including some who may have provided vehicles or other support.
But who were these two, and why might they have unleashed terror on Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia?
Muhammad, a veteran of the Gulf War, converted to Islam, according to The Seattle Times. Malvo is a citizen of Jamaica. The Times quoted federal sources as saying the two had been known to speak sympathetically about the hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But there was no indication, authorities said, that they were linked to al-Qaida or any terrorist group.
The two were arrested without incident by members of the sniper task force at a rest stop in Frederick County, 50 miles northwest of Washington. The time was 3:19 a.m.
Three hours earlier, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose had announced that Muhammad and a juvenile were being sought and issued a nationwide alert for a blue, 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey plates. A motorist and an attendant spotted the car and called police.
The Caprice is co-owned by a New Jersey resident, Nathanel O. Osbourne; FBI officials said he was being sought as a witness.
The car has an opening in its trunk that would permit someone to lie inside and fire the rifle while remaining hidden, two federal law enforcement sources told The Associated Press. That could explain the lack of spent shell casings in most of the shootings, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Investigators now believe that the Caprice was involved in all the shootings. Sightings of white vans and box trucks were attributed to erroneous witness accounts.
Police did not immediately confirm a report in The (Baltimore) Sun’s Thursday editions that the Caprice was approached Oct. 8 by Baltimore officers who found Muhammad and Malvo sleeping. That was the day after a 13-year-old boy in Bowie was wounded as he arrived at school.
The two were allowed to go, sources told the Sun, because investigators were looking for a white van. In the weeks after, four more people were shot by the sniper, three fatally.
All told, 13 people were shot; three survived. The sniper left notes claiming to be God, and warning that children were not safe “anywhere, at any time.”
Thousands of children stayed home from school, and motorists avoided filling their tanks at gas stations where they might be vulnerable to a shot.
Some residents greeted Thursday’s news as if it was the first glimmer of sunrise after the darkness that stretched three weeks.
“I feel a lot safer today,” said Mary Beth Roberts of Stafford County, Va. “Everyone’s smiling and getting out more.”
She was shopping at the Michaels craft store in Fredericksburg, Va., where a 43-year-old woman was critically wounded on Oct. 4; a regular customer, Roberts felt safe to return only after news of the arrests.
Schools kept kids inside for recess again, just to be certain. But La Plata, Md., where the town council had voted to “strongly discourage” trick-or-treating, reversed course.
“I told my wife she better go out and buy some candy,” Town Manager Douglas Miller said Thursday.
Police, who had been under enormous pressure, turned their attention to gathering evidence that Muhammad and Malvo were responsible. The first item was Malvo’s fingerprint, found at the Alabama scene on a magazine about weapons, according to Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright.
Bright did not specify whether the print was found before or after the telephone call claiming responsibility for the sniper attacks and the liquor store shooting, but it was the crucial break.
A composite sketch of the suspect in the liquor-store shootings was made and “there are some very good similarities” to Malvo, Montgomery Police Chief John Wilson said. He said the gun used in Alabama was not the same as the one in the Washington, D.C.-area shootings, however.
Police traced Malvo to a house in Tacoma, Wash., that was searched Wednesday. He had been living in the house with Muhammad, a source told the AP.
FBI agents carted away potential evidence, including a tree stump from the yard that investigators planned to examine for bullets or bullet fragments.
Pfc. Chris Waters, a Fort Lewis soldier who lives across the street from the Tacoma home, said he called police after hearing gunshots in the neighborhood nearly every day in January.
“It sounded like a high-powered rifle such as an M-16,” he said. “Never more than three shots at a time. Pow. Pow. Pow.”
Muhammad did not receive sniper training during his Army career. Muhammad had training in three areas, mainly as a combat engineer, which was his specialty during the time he served in the 1991 Gulf War.
He also was trained as a metal worker and a water transport specialist.
Muhammad enlisted in the Army on Nov. 6, 1985, and was discharged at Fort Lewis on April 26, 1994. After leaving active duty he served in the Oregon National Guard until 1995. Before coming on active duty, he served in the Louisiana National Guard from 1978 to 1985.
His highest ranking on active duty was sergeant.
Muhammad changed his name last year from John Allen Williams, years after he converted to Islam, investigators told the Times.
FBI agents visited Bellingham High School, 90 miles north of Seattle, on Wednesday. Mayor Mark Asmundson said Muhammad and Malvo had been in the area until about nine months ago.
A senior law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said police believe Malvo became like an informal stepson to Muhammad because Muhammad had a relationship with the boy’s mother and for a period of time the three lived in a familial type arrangement.
“The boy eventually latched onto Muhammad. We don’t have evidence it was formalized but it was almost like an informal or common-law stepson,” the source said.
Malvo attended high school in Bellingham last year. Police Chief Randy Carroll said his force had known about Malvo since December 2001, when the high school reported the youth arrived at the school without transcripts or other papers.
At one point, he lived with Muhammad at the Lighthouse Mission, a homeless shelter, Carroll said.