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The Nation | ARRESTS IN SNIPER CASE

A Polite Boy, an Angry Mentor

John Allen Muhammad is a 'natural born leader,' Lee Boyd Malvo an insatiable learner. And they are suspected of causing weeks of terror.

October 25, 2002|Mark Fineman, Peter Hong, and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

TACOMA, Wash. -- They were unlikely companions.

From one corner of America to another, John Allen Muhammad has lived his 41 years by his own rules.

In the Army in Louisiana, where he was a B-student sharpshooter and went by his given name John Williams, he was twice court-martialed in the 1980s for disobeying orders and punching out a fellow sergeant.

As John Allen Muhammad, a converted black Muslim, he violated a court order in Washington state in the 1990s, terrorizing his wife, kidnapping his three young children and holing up on the floor of a Christian chapel in a homeless mission.

And in recent weeks, police now suspect, he lived out of his car with a 17-year-old Jamaican he variously called his son or stepson, picking off victims at random with a Bushmaster high-velocity rifle.

The teenager -- there is no record of any family relationship to Muhammad -- had lived most of his 17 years by the rules of others.

He was born Lee Boyd Malvo to a teenage mother and a 39-year-old mason in the heart of a virtual war zone -- the Jubilee Hospital in downtown Kingston, Jamaica.

He grew up amid the brutal drug wars, record murder rates and wrenching poverty that endures on the Caribbean Island nation, but not without deep Jamaican family values -- an abiding and polite respect with which he greeted any elder "yes, ma'am" or "yes, sir." He had no police record.

Three years ago, Malvo and his mother, Una James, left it all behind for a better future. Illegally, they landed on the Florida shores, smuggled in on a cargo ship.

They migrated to Washington state.

In search of a future, they found John Allen Muhammad.

In time, Muhammad would take the boy with him to that homeless mission in Bellingham, Wash., a town near the Canadian border that one resident describes as "a mecca for people who want to be as far away as possible from wherever they are from."

Malvo would enroll in the local high school, where he proved to be an insatiable learner who knew more about U.S. history than his teacher, classmates recalled. But it wouldn't last; immigration authorities caught up with him, yanked him from school and detained him for three months until last February.

It was after his release, and after a cross-country odyssey that apparently included stays in Baton Rouge, La., and Montgomery, Ala., that Malvo and Muhammad found themselves Thursday in a beat-up Chevy Caprice, surrounded by police officers in the early morning darkness near Frederick, Md., suspected of being random snipers who have terrorized Washington, D.C., and environs since Oct. 2.

That is the picture that emerges from hundreds of pages of court records and interviews with dozens of state, U.S. and Jamaican government officials, and friends and relatives of both men.

Muhammad was born in Louisiana and raised in Baton Rouge, where he grew up with a cousin, Edward Holiday. Holiday, 38, said Thursday that Muhammad's mother died when he was young and he was raised by two aunts, both schoolteachers, and his grandfather.

He has two brothers and two sisters.

"He was real happy-go-lucky," Holiday recalled. "We built go-carts, and we rode them in the park. We'd fix up bikes and ride them in the neighborhood. We were like brothers.

"He was the protector of the neighborhood," he added. "He would stand up for anybody. All the kids looked up to him. He was our hero."

In high school Muhammad played football, tennis and ran track.

Once when Holiday wanted to take a girl on a date, but had no good shoes or car, Muhammad lent him a pair of shoes and his black '78 Olds Cutlass Supreme.

As a soldier, Sgt. Williams never ranked high among America's fighting men. He enlisted in the Louisiana National Guard in August 1978, launching a checkered, 16-year military career that would earn routine ribbons from a stint as an engineer in the Persian Gulf War, two courts-martial and marksmanship skills that ranked below expert.

Rafael Miranda, his commanding officer in the National Guard, recalled him as distinctly "middle-of-the-road."

"He was a very nice guy, liked by all the men," Miranda said. "He was like tall, athletic, with a million-dollar smile. He was, I would say, a natural born leader.... But he did have his flashes of anger."

Those occasional rages, which Miranda attributed to marital problems that have plagued Muhammad throughout his adult life, led to two convictions for minor infractions of the military code.

In 1982 he was found guilty of failing to report for duty and disobeying his commanders' orders. He went AWOL for three drills, and ultimately was fined $100 and busted one rank. A year later, he slugged a sergeant above the eye.

But he learned welding, combat engineering and metal working, giving him the skills he would later use to set up shop as an auto and truck mechanic.

His final ranking as a marksman was sharpshooter, one notch below expert.

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