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The Nation | ARRESTS IN SNIPER CASE

Alabama Officials Also Hoping Homicide Solved

A phone caller takes credit for shootings in state's capital and the Washington spree. His tip leads to the arrest of two suspects.

October 25, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Officials said Thursday they believe that at least one of the two people arrested in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper case was involved in a liquor store shooting here in September that left an employee dead and another gravely injured.

"We still have a case to prove. I'm very optimistic," police Chief John Wilson told reporters during a briefing outside the liquor store. "I think we've got a lot to work with here."

Asked later whether he deemed the pair taken into custody in Maryland early Thursday morning as the main suspects in the Sept. 21 liquor store shooting, Wilson said: "I do. I feel very confident about it."

Wilson declined to go into detail on the links between the two cases, saying that federal charges against 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo remained under seal following his arraignment in a federal court in Baltimore. The man arrested with Malvo, 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad, faced a federal firearm charge stemming from a 2000 court order in Tacoma, Wash.

Wilson declined to comment on reports that Malvo's fingerprints were found at the state-run liquor store after the shooting. Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright said during an interview earlier in the day that fingerprints were recovered from a firearm publication found in the parking lot near where the women fell.

During the late-afternoon briefing, Bright told reporters that evidence from the liquor store case "could very well" prove to be the critical link in leading investigators to Muhammad and Malvo, who were arrested as they slept in a car at a highway rest stop in Maryland.

Investigators assigned to the sniper case became interested in the month-old liquor-store assault Sunday after receiving a telephone call from someone suggesting he was involved in the sniper shootings. In an apparent bid to be taken seriously, the police chief said, the caller also mentioned having been involved in the Alabama assault, going as far as to cite details about the crime, such as the name of a nearby street, Ann Street.

Members of the sniper task force contacted Montgomery police, confirmed that the incident had occurred and asked for evidence gathered by Wilson's investigators. Wilson declined to specify what evidence was handed over from the liquor store shooting, which took place more than a week before the Washington-area sniper attacks began.

In the Montgomery incident, a gunman approached the store employees as they closed for the evening and opened fire. One longtime employee, 52-year-old Claudine Parker, died. Kellie Adams, 24, was seriously injured. Two police officers on patrol nearby heard the shots. When they came upon the scene in front of ABC Beverages, the suspected gunman was standing over the two women, rifling through a purse, before he saw the police and ran.

One of the officers gave chase over a 20-foot-wide concrete ditch, around cars and through fast-food restaurant parking lots along the commercial strip next to Interstate 85. At one point, Wilson said, the officer came within two feet of capturing the suspect but lost him after being cut off by a car.

Following news of a possible connection to the subsequent sniper shootings, the officer was "heartsick," Wilson said.

Montgomery investigators posted a composite drawing of the gunman and issued press releases on the case in hopes of generating leads. The police chief characterized the liquor store investigation as a "very hot case" even before the latest development, though he declined to specify what evidence his detectives were able to gather before they were contacted by federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms this week.

Wilson said he thought the composite drawing, which was created largely from the recollection of the police officer who gave chase, bore "very good similarities" to photographs of Malvo shown on television Thursday. Wilson said the weapon used in the liquor store assault was not the one used in the sniper shootings.

He said there seemed to be little to explain any connection between the Washington, D.C., suspects and Montgomery. The men did not seem to have ties to the city, he said, and may have been passing through.

News of a possible link to the sniper cases sent an added chill through Montgomery, a state capital of just more than 200,000 that many residents describe as having a small-town feeling.

Down the street from the liquor store, at the Down the Street Cafe, the lunch crowd ordered up the country-fried steak special and watched the latest news bulletins flashing on two television screens.

Kindergarten teacher Carole Hancock said one of her four children, a daughter, had stopped at an automated teller machine near the liquor store on the night of the shooting and heard the gunfire. A son passed by on his way to McDonald's around the same time. Both children saw the shooting victims on the pavement.

The possible link to the sniper case "shows that anybody in the United States could be affected by this," said her husband, Rusty Hancock, a self-employed furniture salesman. "That's what's frightening."

At Brewster's, a wine and beer shop next to the liquor store, owner Donna Weathers did her best to put up with a visiting army of reporters. She smiled tightly, granted some interviews and turned down others, allowing quietly that she'd be glad when the satellite trucks went home. Weathers had been in her shop with a friend on the night of the shooting and hid in the bathroom after seeing the victims on the ground. She trembled as she recounted the story.

"I never, ever, ever in a million years have thought that this would have anything to do with snipers," she said.

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