Special Reports

Muhammad raised suspicions in Bellingham a year ago

BELLINGHAM - Suspicion began swirling around John Allen Muhammad about a year ago with rumors about his gun, a mysterious cash flow and his reputed desire to live near the Canadian border so he could flee the country.

Local authorities also say they heard about how he wanted his rifle modified to fit a case, and how he talked of wanting a silencer so he could kill police.

They heard various people's concerns in October, November, December and June. And twice, investigators visited the homeless shelter where Muhammad lived to see about children in his care.

But there was nothing to indicate Muhammad, 41, and 17-year-old companion John Lee Malvo would, months later, become suspects in the serial shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three in the Washington, D.C., area.

The Rev. Alan Archer, who runs the Lighthouse Mission, was among the first to raise red flags. Archer said Muhammad took calls from travel agents at the shelter and claimed to fly to Denver and Salt Lake City to ski. He seemed too quiet, too neat and too polite, Archer said.

"It was like he was doing anything he could to keep anyone from noticing him," Archer said.

Archer also wondered where Muhammad's travel money was coming from and began wondering whether he might be a terrorist.

"I just kind of concluded he was getting money from some group," Archer said. "I felt he was possibly involved in planning an attack against our country."

Archer got so suspicious that he called the FBI in October. FBI spokesman Ray Lauer would not say whether his agency investigated Archer's report, citing the ongoing investigation.

When sheriff's deputies later took two of Muhammad's children and returned them to his second wife, who had custody, it confirmed Archer's suspicions that Muhammad "was not the person he was portraying."

Another flag came from Kristine Sagor, the owner of an apartment building where Muhammad did odd jobs. An attorney for Sagor said she gave Muhammad a ride to a gunsmith, where he asked if his rifle could be modified so it could be taken apart and placed in a case no more than one foot in length.

The attorney, Harvey Chamberlin, said Sagor thought Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam, might be involved in terrorism. He also said Sagor told authorities Muhammad said he wanted to live near the Canadian border so he could leave the United States easily.

On Nov. 30, Sagor told what she knew to the Bellingham police, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Border Patrol. A Border Patrol spokesman said the agency has no record of the call, but was double-checking its records.

A Bellingham police detective took Sagor's information and filed it as a suspicious person report - one of a handful the city's police department receives daily. Bellingham Police Lt. Dac Jamison said it ended there because there was no evidence a crime had occurred, and Sagor didn't report actually seeing a gun.

Nothing happened after Sagor called authorities, Chamberlin said, so she called again a few months later to follow up. Again, nothing.

"She came to feel they were not taking her seriously," Chamberlin said.

The next time Bellingham police crossed paths with Muhammad was December, this time after Malvo's mother arrived to ask for help getting her son back. Police went to the Lighthouse Mission and interviewed Malvo, putting him into state custody for one night and then releasing him to his mother, Una James.

In June, Harjit Singh, who had met Muhammad at the Bellingham YMCA, told police Muhammad had talked about wanting to get a silencer for his rifle and use it to kill police officers.

Police passed the information to the FBI, who interviewed Singh. A law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the FBI did not try to interview Muhammad, concluding that the silencer issue was a matter for the ATF and the threats against police were a local law enforcement issue.

ATF agent Patrick Berarducci said his agency heard about Muhammad and the silencer only in a casual conversation at the Bellingham Police Department.

Berarducci said the conversation was "just one of thousands of conversations that our agents have with law enforcement."