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Muslim charged in sniper case

Published: 11:45AM Friday October 25, 2002

John Allen Muhammad, the man arrested in the sniper shootings that have terrified the Washington area, is a longtime convert to Islam whom acquaintances describe as a controlling former soldier and drifter who once kidnapped his own children.

Friends and family said the tall, 41-year-old Muhammad had converted to Islam 17 years ago when he divorced his first wife and joined the Army, moving to Washington state. He reportedly changed his name from John Allen Williams about a year ago.

Police said on Thursday that Muhammad, and a 17-year-old also arrested, John Lee Malvo, were not known to belong to any organized group.

"It appears that they have acted on their own," Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll told a news conference.

The 6 foot, 1 inch veteran and Malvo were found sleeping in a car a highway rest stop in rural Maryland, and arrested. Authorities found a Bushmaster .223 calibre rifle in the car. The sniper's victims were all felled with .223 calibre ammunition.

US Federal law enforcement officials say a semi-automatic rifle found in a car occupied by Muhammad is the weapon used in the series of sniper shootings in and around Washington, DC.

The weapon seized from the vehicle occupied by Muhammad has been forensically determined to be the murder weapon involved in the shootings," Michael Bouchard of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said at a news conference.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose says Muhammad and Malvo are now considered suspects in the case.

A senior Defense Department official in Washington said Muhammad was an "expert" rifle marksman who served as a combat engineer in the 1991 Gulf War. He served in the active Army from Nov. 6, 1985, until his release from the service at Fort Lewis, Washington, on April 26, 1995, the official said.

Muhammad, known then by his former name of John Allen Williams, also served for at least eight years in the Army National Guard in Louisiana and Oregon.

The official said Muhammad earned several badges and ribbons, including an "expert marksmanship" badge with the Army's standard M-16 assault rifle.

But government sources told Reuters he had not been trained as a sniper, nor was he a special operations soldier. They said he was in a "combat support unit" at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

According to published reports, Muhammad spent the past 20 years moving around the nation, spending time in places as far away as Tacoma, in Washington state, and Louisiana.

Public records show that his most recent address was in Clinton, Maryland - the heart of the recent shootings in which 10 people have been killed and three seriously injured since Oct. 2.

Changed religion

Twice married, and the father of four children, Muhammad went through two bitter custody battles, the Seattle Times said, citing his first wife, Carol. She told the newspaper he converted to Islam about the same time as he joined the army.

"After he changed his religion, he called me and told me what not to feed my child," she told the newspaper." I told him as long as he (their son) lived with me, it was up to me."

Carol Williams also said her ex-husband moved to Tacoma after their divorce 17 years ago. When her son visited Muhammad in Tacoma, she said she had to fight a legal battle to get him back.

According to the Seattle paper, Williams' second marriage also ended in divorce. It cited court records that showed his second ex-wife, Mildred, obtained a restraining order against him in 2000 that also prohibited Muhammad from possessing a gun.

Carol Williams told the newspaper that Mildred had called her a couple of years ago saying Muhammad had kidnapped their children and asking for her help in getting them back.

Neighbours report target practice

Muhammad appears to have spent the past couple of years drifting between Tacoma and Bellingham in Washington state in the company of Malvo.

Police said Malvo briefly attended a Bellingham high school last year. Authorities also said the pair stayed at a Christian homeless shelter in the city but they could find no record of Malvo attending school elsewhere.

"The information that I have was that (Malvo) was quiet and that he spent a lot of time in the library studying," Bellingham police chief Carroll said.

Muhammad was posing as Malvo's father, but their exact relationship was not clear, he added.

Neighbours in the rundown Tacoma street where investigators raided a rented house on Wednesday said they had occasionally heard what sounded like target practice. Agents removed a large tree stump and scanned the ground with metal detectors, apparently looking for bullet fragments or shell casings.

Brian Jones told the Seattle Times he had heard shots as recently as September. "It was three shots in a row - boom, boom, boom," he said.

Leo Dudley, a friend who lived near Muhammad in Tacoma, said he had once provided security in Washington, DC, for the Million Man March.

Dudley said Muhammad kept himself fighting fit. "Any time he shook your hand he would crush it. He was just country. He was from down South, and the military brought him up here," Dudley said.

© Reuters