Special Reports

Tacoman who gave tip on Muhammad hiding from spotlight

In the gritty Tacoma neighborhoods where accused sniper John Allen Muhammad found refuge before his alleged killing spree, it was a former Army buddy who helped him fit in.

Robert Holmes' stature helped. At well over 6 feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, the one-time Golden Gloves heavyweight commanded allegiance and trust from his neighbors and friends. But Holmes also won people over with his warm personality and generosity.

"He was a big, giant teddy bear guy," said Michael James, one of the mechanics who worked at the garage where Holmes rented space.

Neighbors and colleagues universally describe Holmes as a good guy who would do anything for a friend. It's that devotion that probably led him to occasionally take in a down-on-his-luck Muhammad over the past few years.

What is less clear is how Holmes decided to turn on his former comrade and extend his helping hand to federal agents trying to solve the sniper serial killings 3,000 miles away.

His tip that Muhammad tried outfitting a high-powered rifle with a silencer helped lead to the arrest of Muhammad and his alleged accomplice last week at a Maryland rest area.

Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, were charged Friday with six of the 10 killings. Muhammad faces the death penalty, and the duo face more charges in other jurisdictions.

Holmes is in line to collect part of a $500,000 reward that grew as the killings and three other shootings went unsolved for 22 days.

Despite repeated attempts to reach Holmes for comment, he was said to be hiding from the spotlight since last week when federal agents began combing his back yard at 3310 S. Proctor St. for evidence.

Instead, what emerges is a picture described by friends of a man who was willing to help anyone.

Cynthia Carlson, a former neighbor who stays in touch with Holmes, said he never hesitated to help fix her car, trim her trees or climb up on the roof of her house to check her chimney. The former boxing champion also volunteered to teach the sport at a local youth club.

At times, his kindness extended to those who appeared to take advantage of his good nature.

"He's the kind of guy that would do anything for anybody - to the detriment of himself," said Dean Brown, another mechanic at Old Volks Rod & Custom.

After Holmes and his wife split up a couple of years ago, Muhammad was one of a number of people who began hanging around his former house in Parkland, said Mike, a next door neighbor and friend who would not give his last name.

Mike, an ex-con who works with Narcotics Anonymous, said some of the group made him uncomfortable because they appeared to be "tweakers," or methamphetamine users.

Brown said tools and other equipment began disappearing from the auto shop after Holmes paid some questionable characters to salvage auto parts from a junk yard.

Both men said they don't think Holmes was a drug user.

Holmes' current house has recently been burglarized, neighbors said, and a recently torched car sits in his driveway.

Muhammad, who met Holmes at Fort Lewis in 1985, showed up there this summer with Malvo and they painted the duplex.

Brown said Holmes told him: "I didn't really hang out with him. He was my Army buddy."

Holmes told the FBI that Muhammad stayed at his house three times in the past six months. Muhammad showed off two rifles and a scope and said he tried unsuccessfully to make a silencer for the rifle, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Muhammad said, "Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?"

Despite reporting the sound of gunfire to police one night, Deborah Waters said she never suspected Muhammad was the source. She said he was friendly and quiet, and she trusted him to take her 7-year-old son swimming at the YMCA because he was Holmes' friend.

When Muhammad came to the auto shop in September to try buying a 1965 Lincoln Continental, the mechanics didn't scrutinize him as they would other customers. When he claimed to be Holmes' brother and asked for a break in price, however, they became skeptical because Holmes said his only brother was dead.

Brown said he considers Holmes a hero for turning in his former fellow soldier. But it's shrouded in irony as he tries to keep out of public view.

"Far as we're concerned, Robert did what was just," Brown said. "He helped out the country and now he has no peace."