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Sniper Suspect Drifted Across the Americas

John Allen Muhammad's wanderings took him from gun shops in Tacoma, Wash., to Antigua with his kids.

October 26, 2002|Mark Fineman, Eric Slater and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

TACOMA, Wash. -- Suspected sniper John Allen Muhammad had a fondness for the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, the model linked to 11 of the 14 shootings that terrorized the nation's capital. He bought two of them at gun shops here in the last three years -- including the suspected murder weapon, according to gun shop employees and other sources.

Muhammad also spent time in the eastern Caribbean island of Antigua, where he fraudulently got himself a passport during the months he spent there with his three children in 2000. His former wife asserted in desperate court filings in Tacoma during their absence that he had "abducted" the children.

And long before he changed his name from John Allen Williams last year, Muhammad spent 15 years in the U.S. Army, plowing down antitank berms with the Dragoons of the 2nd Armored Cavalry in America's push to drive Iraq from Kuwait. He was honorably discharged in April 1994, he stated in an affidavit the following year.

These are among the tantalizing details that began to emerge about Muhammad across a wide swath of the Americas on Friday, as witnesses, acquaintances and others who came in contact with the 41-year-old New Orleans native weighed in with pieces in the puzzle of his life.

Among the more dramatic disclosures were Muhammad's rifle purchases here. Authorities believe the Bushmaster linked to the sniper spree was shipped in June to Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma by Maine-based Bushmaster Firearms Inc., and bought later by Muhammad.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Friday pored through the records of the store, the largest firearms outlet in Pierce County, and their investigation continued into the evening.

Although the shop, in a two-story brick building near downtown that sports a huge mural of safari animals on the side, is owned by a former U.S. Army sniper instructor, there is no indication he knew Muhammad, who finished his Army tour of duty at nearby Ft. Lewis.

Muhammad bought the rifle when he was under a restraining order for domestic violence in his divorce case, which legal sources in Seattle said should have prevented him from buying any type of firearm in the state.

Across town from Bull's Eye, employees at Welcher's Gun Shop said that Muhammad had bought another, nearly identical Bushmaster on Dec. 28, 1999, and sold the rifle back to the shop five months later.

"We then sold that firearm to another individual," relieved owner John Welcher said Friday after the ATF descended on his shop.

Meantime, officials in the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda confirmed Friday that Muhammad had obtained an Antiguan passport two years ago by swearing that his mother was an Antiguan named Eva Ferris.

Muhammad's marriage certificate on file in Baton Rouge, La., where he spent most of his childhood years, states that his mother's name was Merdie Holiday. And the daughter of the real Eva Ferris, Muriel Allen, told reporters in Antigua that she is a teacher at the school where Muhammad enrolled his children during his stay.

There was no indication why Muhammad secured the Antiguan passport, which was issued on July 4, 2000.

In the affidavit Muhammad filed in Pierce County court here in his divorce from Mildred Muhammad, he said that he took the couple's children with him to Antigua on March 27, 2000, because his ex-wife had asked him to take care of them for a while.

He stated in the affidavit, which he filed in an effort to fight the restraining order, that when he arrived on the island he stayed with Jeanette Killman, whose cousin was a friend of Muhammad in Tacoma.

"Four months later, I got a place of our own," Muhammad stated, adding, "In late June 2000, I returned with the children to Tacoma

"Anyway, we ended up in Bellingham," Wash.

New details Friday showed it was one of Muhammad's later stays in Bellingham that provided the first known link between him and Lee Boyd Malvo, the 17-year-old Jamaican who was arrested with Muhammad inside a worn, 1990 Chevrolet Caprice at a rest stop in suburban Maryland.

Federal immigration officials in Seattle confirmed that Malvo and his Jamaican mother, Una James, were arrested in Bellingham on Dec. 19. Muhammad and Malvo together had checked into a mission in town two months earlier, and Malvo enrolled himself in high school, where he endeared himself to many.

But on Friday, INS officials in Seattle said Malvo and his mother were detained after Malvo's mother called police and accused Muhammad of domestic abuse. Police turned James and Malvo over to the INS.

Under questioning, James claimed not to know the boy -- an apparent effort to keep him in the U.S. if she was deported. But Malvo told agents he was the woman's son and that they had taken a boat from Jamaica to Haiti and then on to Miami, where they landed illegally in June 1999, INS officials said.

The two were held for just under a month and released on a $1,500 bond pending an immigration hearing, now scheduled for Nov. 20.

With the suspects now tied to this Seattle suburb, police have begun looking into unsolved homicides and on Friday reopened one they consider especially interesting.

In February, Keenya Cook, 21, was shot once with a .45-caliber handgun as she stood in her aunt's doorway. The aunt, Isa Nichols, had worked as an accountant for Muhammad and came to know the family, Tacoma Police Department spokesman Jim Mattheis said. When the couple divorced, Nichols sided with Mildred. Police are trying to learn whether an angry Muhammad may have sought out Nichols and killed her niece by mistake.


Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg, in Kingston, Jamaica, and researchers Lianne Hart in Baton Rouge and Robert Patrick in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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