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THE NATION | THE SNIPER CASE

Two Sniper Suspects Charged With Murder

Maryland prosecutor issues warrants. FBI officials seek a third man for questioning.

October 26, 2002|Ralph Vartabedian and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A Maryland prosecutor charged John Allen Muhammad and his traveling companion, Lee Boyd Malvo, with six counts each of first-degree murder late Friday, the first legal salvo in the sniper killing spree that flared across two states and the nation's capital.

A spokesman for Montgomery County, Md., State's Atty. Douglas F. Gansler confirmed that arrest warrants had been issued for Muhammad and Malvo, charging them in the six slayings that racked the suburban county between Oct. 2 and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, federal officials issued a warrant Friday for a third man sought for questioning in the purchase of a car used in the sniper attacks.

The move to charge the two sniper suspects Friday night came in a six-page document containing terse warrants listing the names of the sniper victims and accusing Muhammad and Malvo of "premeditated malice." John P. McLane, the prosecutor's spokesman, said a county district court commissioner had ordered that the statements of facts for both defendants "must remain sealed" until they were served with the charges.

The two defendants are being held at a federal detention center in Baltimore, where they were taken after their arrests early Thursday at a rural Maryland roadside rest area. Muhammad was arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court on a federal weapon charge. Malvo, held as a material witness, underwent a closed-door hearing normally accorded to juveniles.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials in Maryland, Virginia and Alabama have all said they intend to indict the two suspects on murder charges, triggering a debate about which state could most quickly send them to the execution chamber.

The decision about who gets to prosecute first could end up in the lap of the Bush administration.

Political tempers are already flaring. Although Maryland sustained the heaviest death toll and much of the investigation was concentrated there, three slayings occurred in Virginia, which is widely recognized as one of the most successful states in obtaining death sentences.

Further complicating the decision is that some federal prosecutors are considering making the first prosecution in the case. Although murder by itself is not a federal crime, a prosecution could potentially be made under the Hobbs Act, which requires proof that the murders were based on an attempted extortion, prosecutors said.

A consensus has emerged quickly among officials from all the affected jurisdictions that the slayings warrant the death penalty. But Maryland and the federal government do not allow executions of minors; Virginia does. Malvo is 17.

Although all jurisdictions can ultimately prosecute the men on all pertinent charges, the most attention clearly will go to the first prosecutors.

With many questions about the crimes unanswered, Malvo and Muhammad are refusing to talk. Both were being interrogated extensively and separately as authorities tried to gain confessions that could significantly expedite their prosecutions.

"They are not cooperating," one senior federal law enforcement official said. "They're not talking. Neither of them. They've clammed up."

Meanwhile, FBI director Robert S. Mueller III signed a material witness warrant Friday that seeks the arrest of Nathanel Osbourne, a Jamaican from Camden, N.J., who is the co-owner with Muhammad of the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice allegedly used in the shootings. Muhammad and Malvo spent time around the Camden neighborhood where Osbourne lived, witnesses told the FBI.

Such warrants are issued when authorities believe a person is likely to flee or otherwise be uncooperative in an investigation. While Osbourne is not a "subject" of the investigation, Mueller said, "it is believed that he can provide law enforcement officials with valuable information regarding this case."

Why Osbourne helped Muhammad purchase and register the vehicle, a former police car in Bordentown Township, N.J., in mid-September is not known, according to Camden police. The vehicle allegedly was modified to allow someone to shoot victims with a rifle equipped with a scope out of an opening in the trunk, though FBI officials and other law enforcement authorities would not discuss those details. The modifications took place after the vehicle was sold by the township, according to Mayor Mark Roselli.

Although FBI officials said they did not believe anyone else had taken an active role in the shootings, they were not ready to rule that out.

"The case is still pending so we are not saying that the two we have are it or if others are involved," an FBI official said. "There are still a lot of leads to be covered and loose ends to be tied up. We are still pursuing a lot of leads and right now we don't know the extent of the involvement of others, if there are others."

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