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Two Shootings Could Be Tied to Sniper Case

Similarities are seen in September incidents in Maryland. They also occurred in area where the ex-wife of suspect Muhammad lives.

November 05, 2002|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Police investigating the three-week spate of killings in the suburbs of the nation's capital are examining two shootings that occurred in September near a house occupied by a suspect's former wife, authorities said Monday.

A police spokeswoman in Prince George's County, Md., said sniper task force investigators were looking into both shootings because they had occurred near the neighborhood where Mildred Muhammad, the ex-wife of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, has been living. "We're waiting to hear from the task force" on both cases, Cpl. Diane Richardson said.

Both incidents occurred in Clinton, a Prince George's County community where Mildred Muhammad and her three children moved from Tacoma, Wash., after her marriage fell apart. Witnesses have reported that John Allen Muhammad surfaced in Clinton in September and even may have played with his children.

Police departments across the country -- from the Washington, D.C., area to Washington state -- are burrowing through unsolved robbery and homicide cases, looking for links to the sniper slayings.

If a Sept. 5 shooting in Clinton is connected to the sniper suspects, it would add a crucial link to the timeline, suggesting that the crime spree may have begun three days before Muhammad showed up in Camden, N.J., where he bought a blue Chevrolet Caprice that police say hid a mobile sniper's nest. A second shooting on Sept. 15 -- a day after a liquor store employee was wounded by rifle fire in neighboring Montgomery County and six days before a suspected related slaying in Montgomery, Ala. -- would signal another burst of activity.

Even before the run of shootings that killed 10 and wounded three in and around the Washington region last month, Prince George's detectives suspected that the shootings on Sept. 5 and Sept. 15 had been committed by one assailant.

In each case, a victim was wounded by a gunman armed with a .22-caliber pistol who then fled into the night.

"Our investigators already thought the cases were related because the suspect's M.O. [modus operandi] was the same in each case," Richardson said.

In the Sept. 15 incident, the gunman escaped with a man's wallet. In the Sept. 5 case, the suspect grabbed more than $3,000 in cash and a laptop computer.

Richardson said police were waiting to hear from task force officials whether the stolen laptop matched a computer found in the blue Caprice in which Muhammad and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested.

Montgomery County Police Capt. Nancy Demme, a task force spokeswoman, said Monday that an FBI analysis of the computer would not be completed until today at the earliest.

But the laptop's owner said he became suspicious as soon as he heard that police had found a Sony Vaio laptop computer in the Caprice.

"It certainly makes me wonder," said Paul LaRuffa, a restaurant owner who was shot six times and lost his computer and his night receipts on Sept. 5. "The guy who shot me didn't give me any warning. All of a sudden, my car window shatters and I'm hit."

LaRuffa said he had checked his America Online account to see if his computer had been used for Internet traffic since it was stolen and found no activity.

Wounded in his arm, stomach, diaphragm and back, LaRuffa recuperated speedily in two weeks and is back at work, hobbled only by nerve damage in one hand. He did not see his assailant, but other restaurant employees described the shooter as an adult black male -- a sighting that mirrored witness accounts in the Sept. 15 incident.

In that case, Richardson said, an unidentified businessman was shot in the stomach within minutes after closing for the night. "A suspect ran up and began firing," Richardson said. The attacker fled with the man's wallet. None of the witnesses saw a second assailant, Richardson said.

Muhammad, 41, was arrested at a Maryland rest stop Oct. 24 along with Malvo, a 17-year-old Jamaican who reportedly accompanied him during a yearlong trek across the country. While Muhammad has been charged with murder in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana, he is being held by federal authorities on a firearm warrant.

Malvo, who also has been charged with murder in the same states, appeared before a federal judge in Greenbelt, Md., on Monday for a detention hearing. Because he is under 18, the details of his two-hour hearing were sealed. Muhammad is scheduled to appear today for his own detention hearing before a federal magistrate in Greenbelt.

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