Special Reports

Federal court is sniper suspect’s first stop as prosecutors ponder charges

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Authorities in three states and the District of Columbia conferred Friday about who should prosecute the two suspects arrested in the deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area for 21 days.

Law enforcement officials in Alabama moved aggressively, saying sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad was at the scene of a deadly holdup in that state’s capital last month. They announced that they would seek the death penalty in the case.

“We want to send a very strong message to not only this community and this state but the country that this is not the kind of conduct, this is not what we expect of civilized society,” Police Chief John Wilson told reporters Friday. “We’re going to make an example of somebody.”

Testing on a high-powered rifle found in the suspects’ car, which had a hole bored in the trunk where a sniper could lie flat and shoot undetected, was the weapon used in at least 11 attacks, authorities said.

Muhammad, 41, was ordered held without bail on a federal weapons violation Thursday, hours after he and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo were captured at a Maryland rest stop where they had been sleeping in their car.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said the two are considered suspects in attacks that killed 10 people and critically wounded three in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In Montgomery, Ala., chief Wilson told reporters Friday that witnesses saw Muhammad at the scene of the September liquor store robbery that killed one woman and wounded another. On Thursday, Wilson said one person had been spotted at the scene and he suggested it was Malvo.

Prosecutors from the jurisdictions where the shootings happened were discussing charges Friday.

“I think the general consensus is that the case will be tried first in Montgomery County,” said Douglas Gansler, state’s attorney for the Maryland jurisdiction. “We have the best evidence in the case; also the investigation was run out of Montgomery County.”

But he stressed Friday that no final decision had been made. He said he hoped to have a statement Friday afternoon what charges will be brought, and where, “but we have to hammer that out during the course of the day.”

One issue in deciding who prosecutes the two may be the death penalty.

Maryland, where six victims were slain, and Virginia, where three were killed, also have capital punishment. Maryland, however, has had a moratorium on executions since May. Virginia has executed more death row inmates than any state but Texas. The states’ laws also differ on age: A 17-year-old would be eligible for the death penalty in Virginia and Alabama but not in Maryland.

Officials say a federal prosecution is unlikely because it appears there is no federal law that would make the sniper eligible for the death penalty.

In court Thursday, U.S. District Court Magistrate Beth P. Gesner ordered Muhammad held without bail at an undisclosed location on a charge of violating a 2000 restraining order that barred him from harassing or using force against his wife and children. His next scheduled court appearance is Tuesday.

Malvo, a Jamaican citizen, is considered a juvenile, so his federal court proceedings are closed. Malvo was being held as a material witness against Muhammad.

Jim Wyda, Muhammad’s attorney, noted that his client has been charged only with that firearms offense, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Michael Bouchard, special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, said a Bushmaster rifle found in Muhammad’s car had been linked by ballistics to 11 of the 14 shootings.

The rifle 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 the use of the M-16, according to Army records. Police also found a scope in the car, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Muhammad, in handcuffs and a green prison jumpsuit, spoke little during the 10-minute hearing. When Gesner asked if he understood the charge, he quietly answered, “Yes, ma’am.”

The motive behind the slayings still wasn’t clear, and authorities didn’t want to speculate.

Federal officials have, however, said that Muhammad and Malvo had been known to speak sympathetically about the terrorist hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year, The Seattle Times reported. There was no indication they were linked to al-Qaida or any terrorist group, but authorities didn’t rule out that the suspects may have had help.

Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran, converted to Islam several years ago and changed his last name last year from Williams.

A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined developments that led to the arrests:

On Thursday, Oct. 17, a Montgomery County public information officer received a call from someone they now believe was the sniper. The caller referred to a robbery-homicide in “Montgomery” — not, in itself, enough to prompt authorities to call police in that Alabama city.

The next day, a priest in Ashland, Va., received a call from someone who said he was God and mentioned a crime in Montgomery, Ala., according to the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond. Apuzzo said the priest, Monsignor William V. Sullivan, dismissed the call as a prank.

After a shooting in Ashland on Saturday, task force members visited Sullivan at his church Sunday, according to Apuzzo, and the priest told them about the call.

Montgomery, Ala., police said they were contacted by the task force Sunday.

However, the law enforcement source gave a different account. The source said a priest contacted the task force last Friday after getting a call from the sniper.

Fingerprint evidence from the Sept. 21 robbery attempt outside the liquor store led police to Malvo, then to a house in Tacoma, Wash., where he had been living with Muhammad, a source told the AP.

Police announced late Wednesday they were looking for the two and their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, and a few hours later a motorist spotted the car at the rest stop and called police.

The car 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 AP. That could explain the lack of spent shell casings in most of the shootings, the officials said.

Investigators now believe the Caprice was involved in all the shootings. Sightings of white vans and box trucks were attributed to erroneous witness accounts.

That confusion may have cost lives. On Oct. 8, Baltimore police officers approached the Caprice and found Muhammad sleeping inside, spokeswoman Ragina Averella said. That was the day after a 13-year-old boy in Bowie was critically wounded as he arrived at school.

But no action was taken, sources told The (Baltimore) Sun, because investigators were looking for a white van. In the weeks after, four more people were shot by the sniper, three fatally.

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.

In La Plata, Md., the town council had voted to “strongly discourage” trick-or-treating. On Thursday it reversed course.

“I told my wife she better go out and buy some candy,” Town Manager Douglas Miller said.