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Man Sought in Sniper Case; Search Spreads

Task force agents seek traces of ammunition in Tacoma, Wash., yard as domestic terror angle is pursued. He may have information in the case.

October 24, 2002|Stephen Braun, Mark Fineman and Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Law enforcement task force officials hunting the Washington-area killer issued an arrest warrant late Wednesday night for an "armed and extremely dangerous" firearms suspect, then issued another veiled plea to the slayer.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who heads the sniper task force, said police issued an alert for John Allen Muhammad, sought on "alleged violation of federal firearms laws." Muhammad, 42, was described as black, 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds.

Moose cautioned that Muhammad's arrest warrant "was not related to the recent shootings under investigation" by the task force, but that Muhammad "may have information material to our investigation." At the same time, Moose spoke directly to the killer, who cryptically told police he wanted to be described as caught "like a duck in a noose."

Issuing a photograph showing a clean-shaven man with a cropped haircut, the chief said Muhammad might be accompanied by a 17-year-old boy.

Muhammad, who also calls himself John Allen Williams, had served in the military, a federal official said. The Pierce County, Wash., Sheriff's Office said Muhammad was once stationed at Ft. Lewis, an Army post south of Tacoma, Wash. -- a base renowned for its training for Army Rangers and snipers.

Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, a Ft. Lewis spokesman, said that the base has been asked by the FBI for assistance and "we are cooperating in any way we can."

Just hours earlier, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents searched for traces of ammunition in the backyard of a house in Tacoma as part of the murder probe across the country in the Washington, D.C., area. The capital sniper has killed 10 and wounded three since Oct. 2.

A federal law enforcement official confirmed Wednesday night that task force investigators have been focusing on domestic terrorism as a potential motivating factor in the killings, and said that the search in Tacoma was part of that possibility. "Among competing theories, domestic terror is being strongly considered," the official said.

The official said there is no evidence that the killings are linked to any domestic terrorist group. Instead, investigators are examining the premise that the killers may be motivated by a desire to embarrass law enforcement authorities, killing at will in an effort to prove that the government's counter-terrorism efforts since the Sept. 11 attacks are porous and easily evaded.

"The theory is that these are people who think they're smarter than the government," the official said. "It's domestic terror in idea, not organization, the sense that someone is reacting to the new focus on counter-terrorism and trying to prove that he or they can outsmart us."

Even amid the new flurry of investigative action, Moose took care to address the elusive sniper who killed again Tuesday in Montgomery County, felling a bus driver, 35, with his signature long-distance single rifle shot.

Moose hinted that police contacts with the sniper had been riddled with breakdowns. He urged the suspect to be patient and stay in touch.

"We understand that you communicated with us by calling several different locations," Moose said. "Our inability to communicate has been a concern to us, as well as it has been for you. You have indicated that you wanted us to do and say certain things."

Moose repeated a quote the killer demanded, saying: "You've asked us to say, quote, We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose. End quote. We understand that hearing us saying this is important to you. However, we want you to know how difficult it has been to know what you want because you have chosen to use only notes, indirect messages and calls to other jurisdictions.

"If you are reluctant to contact us, be assured that we remain ready to talk directly with you," Moose said. "Our word is our bond."

FBI agents also swept into a Bellingham, Wash., high school Wednesday, seeking possible connections to the sniper case, local officials confirmed. Mayor Mark Asmundson said the FBI had told Bellingham police they needed information on two people -- a male teenager who reportedly briefly attended the school, and an older man. Neither lived in the Bellingham area for long, and left the area about nine months ago, the mayor said. It was unclear Wednesday night if Muhammad was one of those.

Wednesday's search by FBI and ATF agents in the suburban Tacoma neighborhood was the latest in a series of searches that have been conducted around the country in recent weeks as part of the sniper task force probe, the federal law enforcement official said.

The official said the lead that brought investigators to Tacoma was developed by task force detectives working to solve the killings that have traumatized the nation's capital.

Investigators sawed off a tree trunk in the backyard of the house, wrapped it in plastic and hauled it away during the search, which began Wednesday afternoon. Neighbors on Proctor Street said the agents were apparently looking for bullet fragments.

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