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THE SNIPER CASE

Pair Had Little in Life Besides Each Other

John Allen Muhammad was a man who'd lost his children. His constant companion, Lee Boyd Malvo, was a teenager who'd been abandoned.

October 27, 2002|Megan K. Stack and John-Thor Dahlburg | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Even here, the two men stuck out: The sometime-hobo with easy money and sharp dress who dragged an Army duffel around with him. He had a companion, a Jamaican teen who kept his mouth shut and his eyes low. They spoke little and failed much, this pair of drifters who slept under the watchful gaze of an oil painting of Jesus in a shelter near the port.

Their story began here, on these hills of cedar and fir that slope off toward Canada, in this town of hippies and fishermen and vagrants. A local bartender calls Bellingham "a mecca for people who want to be as far away as possible from where they're from." The pair's journey ended when they were arrested, accused of pulling off a string of sniper shootings that laced the nation's capital with fear throughout October.

They'd been on the run as long as they'd known each other, and over time they became inseparable: a man who'd lost his children; a boy who'd been abandoned by his parents. They just barely got by on the fringes of America, so alone they took to calling themselves father and son. It was last summer when they set off from this sleepy town on a slow cross-country descent into disaster, much of which is still a mystery. By the time they left, they didn't have much to lose.

John Allen Muhammad was a former soldier who'd gone to war but earned no glory, who couldn't keep a job or a wife, who flailed through the court system in a desperate -- and unsuccessful -- struggle to reclaim custody of his three children. He ended up sleeping with them on the floor of an old stone shelter, and eventually lost them for good when his terrified ex-wife spirited them across the country to Maryland.

"Here's a guy, he's living in homeless shelters, his marriage has disintegrated, his kids have vanished and the courts won't help him," said John Mills, a custody lawyer who took Muhammad's case without charge. "All of those factors combine to disintegrate people."

Lee Boyd Malvo was born of a teenage mother in Jamaica's slums and was remembered by teachers as a sweet, disheveled child who seemed to have been abandoned by his parents. He sneaked through this country's back door in the belly of a cargo ship when he was 14 years old, landed in Florida, then drifted to Washington, a clever, shy teen who wanted badly to go to school. He was turned away from public schools because he had no transcript. He was locked up by immigration authorities. Finally, he was turned loose and ordered to appear at a hearing this autumn. His days in America were likely to run out soon. He had one friend in the world -- Muhammad.

*

Kingston, Jamaica, was a savage maze of murder in 1985. Drug gangs ruled the streets in neighborhoods so heavily armed they were officially dubbed "garrisons." It was in February that year that 19-year-old Una James checked into the Jubilee Hospital to give birth to a baby boy named Lee Boyd Malvo.

The father was builder Leslie Samuel Malvo, 39 -- more than twice her age. He went on to marry twice and father several children. A man of close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, he blames James for their son's misfortune.

"She's a very bad woman, a very bad woman," he said, switching between English and Jamaican patois. "If she never move out and leave, this wouldn't happen."

The young Malvo drifted north and found a home with an aunt in the green hills of northern Jamaica. Slowly, the boy became more disheveled, and said he couldn't do homework because his aunt made him work.

Winsome Maxwell stepped in and took Malvo into her family. "I don't think he was getting any attention at all," the teacher said. "I took him because he had nowhere else to go. He was getting very quiet, his hair and clothes unkempt."

It is unclear where the paths of Malvo and Muhammad first crossed, but it was probably in Antigua, where Muhammad and his three children fled in 2000 to escape the cacophony of the bitter custody dispute. A Persian Gulf War veteran, Muhammad was discharged from the Army and separated from his second wife. He had a handful of failed businesses under his belt. He lied about his mother to get an Antiguan passport.

Malvo apparently passed through Antigua too. His mother was working there -- she'd come to Jamaica once to visit her boy "and cried and cried and cried," Maxwell recalled. Staff at St. John's Seventh-day Adventist School told the Antigua Sun newspaper that the young Jamaican studied there for a time. A security guard remembered seeing Muhammad and Malvo at the hotel spa of the Jolly Beach Hotel.

Muhammad later told his lawyer he couldn't make a go of it in Antigua. The phone lines and computers were behind the times, he complained, so his vague notion of opening another business fell apart. Dispirited, he made his way back to Tacoma, Wash., holed up with some friends from the mosque and eventually wound up in Bellingham. There, he and his three children shared a hallway in the Lighthouse Mission with Felix, the shelter cat.

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