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U.S. News
Malvo and Muhammad charged or suspected in nine shootings before D.C.-area sniper spree

Sunday, December 22, 2002

By Serge F. Kovaleski and Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post

She is 21, a sweet-tempered single mom on the mend from a broken relationship. She manages a women's clothing store and takes business courses and dreams of owning a restaurant.

And these are the final seconds of her life.

It is a winter evening in Tacoma, Wash. As police and her family will later reconstruct it, Keenya Cook undresses her baby daughter for a bath while food simmers on the kitchen stove.

Rain streaks the windows of the two-story house. Cook has recently split with the child's father and moved in with an aunt and teenage cousin, who are not home at the moment. But they'll be right back. It's a dreary Saturday in February, about 7 p.m., and the family plans a cozy night on the couch in their home in the working-class neighborhood of Roosevelt Heights.

Now Cook hears someone at the door.

She leaves 6-month-old Angeleah on a bed and walks downstairs. The front porch light is on, and if she peeks through a narrow pane of glass, she can see who's out there.

She is a quiet young woman with soft brown eyes. Later, her loved ones will wear T-shirts bearing her picture and a plaintive query: "Who did it?"

Now she opens the door to the chill air, and to the muzzle of the .45-caliber pistol.

A pair of wanderers

Nine months later, Tacoma police have publicly identified who they suspect was on the other side of that door: John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, who was two days shy of 17. America did not know them Feb. 16. Not until they were accused of the October sniper attacks in and around the nation's capital would they seize the world's attention.

But there was a long prelude to that October violence, investigators allege, a less noticed yet no less savage string of mayhem. Since their arrests in the sniper attacks, Muhammad and Malvo have been charged or suspected in nine earlier shootings, five of them fatal, in six states from February through September.

They were a pair of wanderers -- Muhammad a native Louisianan barred from seeing his children, Malvo a Jamaican illegal immigrant adrift from his parents -- a misfit and his impressionable surrogate son, guided in their travels by a logic all their own.

From winter to autumn, from Tacoma to the Gulf Coast, in the Arizona desert and the gritty river towns of southern New Jersey, they roamed by bus and later in a dilapidated, 12-year-old Chevrolet Caprice. Although they allegedly robbed and killed along the way, no one in authority managed to stop them.

When they paused here and there, often dirty and nearly penniless, it was the glib Muhammad who usually did the talking, spinning phony stories, insinuating himself and his companion briefly into other people's lives before moving on. Some people welcomed the inseparable pair; others found them unsettling and were happy to see them go. Some were frightened by them -- but most were not.

Usually they said they were father and son, and even one of Muhammad's cousins, Edward Holiday, thought it was true. "He played the role of son so good," Holiday said of Malvo. "When you can fool me, and I'm blood, you're good."

Whom they pretended to be appeared to hinge largely on whom they were with and what stories they thought people would lend an interested or sympathetic ear to.

For a group of college students who gave them a place to stay in Bellingham, Wash., Muhammad played the part of a carefree dad from Jamaica taking his college-bound son on a tour of the United States. To a Louisiana woman organizing a reunion of their 1978 high school senior class, Muhammad said he was a prosperous exporter with a home and loving family in the Virgin Islands.

For the New Jersey auto dealer who sold him the Chevy, Muhammad assumed the role of a typical father buying an inexpensive car for his teenager -- until he changed his story and said he planned to use the Caprice as a taxi.

During that same September week in New Jersey, Muhammad also looked at two used Hondas, one a hatchback and the other a coupe with a small trunk, before settling on the Chevy. The dealer said Muhammad was less interested in the battered Caprice's mechanical condition than he was in the spaciousness of its trunk -- which authorities allege was turned into a shooting platform for the sniper attacks.

In the Baton Rouge, La., home of a cousin, a campus police officer, Muhammad said that he was a covert Army operative tracking a quarter-ton of stolen explosives and that Malvo was a crack member of his undercover team. In a Bellingham supermarket, Malvo gobbled bite-size quesadilla pieces and told the woman at the sample table, who was from Alabama, that he and his dad were from there, too. In a Baton Rouge natural foods store, Muhammad distracted a clerk, holding forth on his career as a traveling health consultant from Canada. Meanwhile, Malvo roamed the aisles, wearing a baggy, knee-length coat on a steamy summer afternoon.

The lies apparently came on a whim. Muhammad told one cousin in Baton Rouge that he and Malvo had arrived by bus, another that they had flown in. Sometimes he went by John Williams, his birth name, and sometimes by John Muhammad, the name he legally took last year, long after converting to Islam.

When he and Malvo visited Tucson, Ariz., in March, bus manifests listed them as John Muhammad and Lee Muhammad on the trip in -- then John Williams and John Williams Jr. on the way out.

The trail of victims in those earlier cases: Keenya Cook in Tacoma; Jerry Ray Taylor in Tucson; Paul LaRuffa, Rupinder Oberoi and Muhammad Rashid in Maryland; Million A. Woldemariam in Atlanta; Claudine Parker and Kellie Adams in Alabama; and Hong Im Ballenger in Baton Rouge. The dead: Cook, Taylor, Woldemariam, Parker, Ballenger.

Since being arrested Oct. 24 in the sniper cases, Muhammad and Malvo have been charged in four of the earlier shootings and described by police as prime suspects in the other five. Committed mostly in communities hundreds of miles apart in a nation where gun violence is endemic, each crime initially caused ripples only in the place where it occurred. In each jurisdiction, local authorities concentrated on their own investigation, unaware of the others, and no one in law enforcement connected the dots until after Muhammad and Malvo were captured.

By then, in what amounted to a siege on the Washington, D.C., area, the pair allegedly had shot 13 more people, 10 fatally, in three October weeks: eight men, four women and an eighth-grade boy, each killed or wounded in public by a single rifle bullet fired from hiding -- random targets cut down at ordinary moments in their daily lives.

A killing in Tacoma

As the alleged snipers await their first murder trials -- each facing a possible death sentence, Muhammad in Prince William County, Va., and Malvo in Fairfax County, Va., -- authorities seeking more evidence in the October shootings are investigating on two tracks, officials said.

One is focused on October and the questions still unanswered about the 13 attacks, including who pulled the trigger in each case.

The other is centered on the relationship and cross-country travels of Muhammad and Malvo before the sniper attacks, as authorities seek a fuller picture of the two. Although there are still missing pieces to the timeline, officials say, a narrative is emerging -- a bizarre, bloody travelogue.

A former Army mechanic with commando fantasies and a poor discipline record in the military, including in the Persian Gulf War, Muhammad had an unpredictable temper and a talent for mind games, which he played with disturbing intensity, according to Mildred Muhammad, who divorced him in 1999 after 11 years of marriage.

She said he could charm or frighten at will, depending on his mood or designs. He was lean and muscular, a gun-lover and weightlifter. She said his brilliant smile masked smoldering resentments -- anger tied to his failures in the Army, in two marriages and in a court fight with her in which she won sole custody of their three children.

While living on the Caribbean island of Antigua for a few years, Muhammad met Malvo. Brought to Antigua by his itinerant Jamaican mother and left to fend for himself there when she departed for America, the youngster, who barely knew his father, found a mentor and surrogate parent in Muhammad, and the two lived together. When Muhammad returned to the United States, Malvo followed, entering the country illegally, and joined his new dad in Washington state last fall in a life of homelessness and alleged petty theft.

Around the same time, a pivotal court hearing took place in Washington state on Sept. 4, 2001 -- one that police now suspect had tragic implications for Keenya Cook. In a ruling that acquaintances say devastated Muhammad, a judge allowed Mildred Muhammad to relocate with her children anywhere she wanted without telling their father. She secretly took them across the country and moved in with her sister in Prince George's County, Md.

About four months after he lost the right to see his children, Muhammad showed up at the Tacoma home of a longtime friend, Robert Holmes. The two had stayed in touch since serving in the Army together in the 1980s, and Holmes welcomed Muhammad's periodic visits. He said Muhammad was not the same man after the custody ruling.

"It was crushing, crushing him," said Holmes, who recalled his old friend's mood as "a cross between livid and very depressed."

Holmes was not surprised that Muhammad had a rifle with him during that visit; he had shown off several rifles to Holmes in the past. What did surprise Holmes was the teenager with Muhammad, whom Holmes had not met before.

Muhammad introduced Malvo as Lee. "I knew it wasn't his son," said Holmes, though the youngster acted the part. "He was like a kid trying to win his dad's approval. ... He was eager to get some love and support."

But Muhammad's mind was on his son and two daughters in hiding with his second ex-wife, especially the son, John Jr., who turned 12 on Jan. 17.

"The only time I've seen depression on his face is when he said his son's birthday had just passed," Holmes said. "He had no way to even call him and wish him a happy birthday."

One witness who helped Mildred Muhammad in the custody fight was Isa Nichols, a former bookkeeper for a defunct auto-repair business the Muhammads had owned. Nichols knew the couple well. And she testified against John Muhammad.

Nichols was Keenya Cook's aunt.

On the rainy night of Feb. 16 when someone came to her Roosevelt Heights home with a .45-caliber pistol, Nichols happened to be out with Cook's cousin buying fixings for chicken tacos.

Months later, after the sniper arrests, investigators learned that Muhammad and Malvo had been staying with a Tacoma man at the time. Police said the man, whom they declined to identify, told them he lent a .45-caliber pistol to the two. Ballistics tests recently showed it was the gun used to kill Cook.

"We all believe that bullet was meant for Isa," said Bill Gold, Cook's grandfather. But then, "we figure whoever ... opened the door would've been killed because this guy was on a vendetta."

Whoever opened the door.

The porch light illuminated Cook.

The bullet pierced the thin bone below her left eye and lodged at the base of her skull. She crumpled in the doorway, where her aunt and cousin soon found her, smoke filling the house from burning food on the stove, the baby still on the bed upstairs, sleeping.

Of the nine pre-October shootings in which Muhammad and Malvo are charged or under investigation, that was the first. Police said they are the only suspects.

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