MONTGOMERY, Ala. - A month ago, an Alabama police officer may have come within a few feet of catching one of the men now being questioned in the deadly sniper attacks near the nation’s capital.
Police Chief John Wilson said Thursday the officer chased after a teenager suspected of killing a liquor store clerk Sept. 21 but couldn’t quite get close enough.
Wilson said the man who fled had “some very good similarities” to John Lee Malvo, a 17-year-old arrested Thursday in Maryland along with his Army veteran stepfather, John Allen Muhammad. Both are being held for questioning in the sniper attacks that have left 10 people dead and three others wounded.
Mayor Bobby Bright said Malvo’s fingerprint was found on a weapons magazine in a parking lot outside the liquor store. It was unclear Thursday why Malvo might have been in Montgomery.
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The police chief said a firm connection between the sniper shootings and the slaying here was still being sought. But he said authorities were very interested in talking with Malvo, and that an officer had been sent to Maryland.
Claudine Parker, 52, was shot to death and co-worker Kellie Adams, 24, was critically wounded after closing the store that night. Police said it was a robbery or an attempted robbery because the gunman was seen standing over a victim and rifling through her purse.
Some aspects of the Alabama and Washington-area crimes are different: Wilson said the gun used here was a different caliber from the .223-caliber weapon used in the sniper attacks. He also said Parker was apparently killed by a handgun, while the weapon in Maryland is believed to be a rifle.
The police chief said two officers in a patrol car across the street at a Taco Bell heard the gunfire outside the liquor store and gave chase on foot, with one narrowly missing the suspect.
A clerk in an adjoining store recalled how she and a friend heard the shots and ran into a bathroom.
“We were terrified,” said Donna Weathers. “My friend saw him run by, but she couldn’t identify him.”
A member of Parker’s family said officers could have done more to stop the killer, possibly avoiding the sniper shootings that followed. “I wonder why they didn’t shoot him in the foot or something,” said sister-in-law Odean Lee of Seattle, Wash.
Wilson said he would not second-guess the judgment of the officer, who did consider firing his gun but did not fire.
“He’s looking at a fleeing suspect who’s not a threat to him, and he was not fully aware of what had transpired” at the shooting scene, Wilson said. “The officer feels just as bad about not catching the suspect for the crime here as anything else.”
Adams said her back was to the street when a single shot struck her just below the base of her skull. She said the gunman had not approached them.
“I never saw a face. I never saw him, period,” Adams told the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper.
The investigation of the liquor store killing had stalled and there was no speculation of any connection to the sniper siege until a call was placed to the sniper task force tip line.
The mayor said the caller apparently claimed responsibility for both the sniper shootings and the Montgomery shooting. Bright said the tip-line caller told authorities to contact Montgomery officials if they didn’t believe he was responsible for the sniper shootings, which began Oct. 2.
That apparent boast led federal investigators to check with investigators here Sunday night.
After his fingerprint was found here, authorities traced Malvo to a home in Tacoma, Wash., where Muhammad is believed to have once lived and which authorities searched Wednesday.