Prosecutors ponder sniper charges
David Dishneau/The Associated Press
ROCKVILLE, Md. -- Prosecutors in three states and the District of Columbia are lining up for the first chance to prosecute the two men arrested in the sniper attacks that killed 10 people and shook thousands from their everyday routines.
John Allen Muhammad, 41 -- arrested with 17-year-old John Lee Malvo -- made his first court appearance and was ordered held without bail Thursday, hours after the nation's largest manhunt came to an end with their capture at a Maryland rest stop where they were sleeping in their car.
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, who headed the sniper task force, said both are considered suspects in the 14 Washington-area shootings since Oct. 2. Three people were injured; no one was hit in a shooting at a store window.
Moose said prosecutors from the seven jurisdictions where the shootings occurred would meet today to discuss filing charges and jurisdictional issues. Moose said they would issue a joint statement, but he didn't say when.
''This investigation is not done and the work will continue until we can assure that it is complete,'' Moose said at a news conference Thursday night.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Beth P. Gesner ordered Muhammad held without bail at an undisclosed location at his first appearance in federal court on a federal firearms charge unrelated to the sniper attacks. His next scheduled court appearance is Tuesday.
It wasn't clear when John Lee Malvo, a Jamaican citizen, would next appear in court. Because he is considered a juvenile, all his federal court proceedings are closed.
Malvo was being held as a material witness, pending charges, in the federal case against Muhammad, which stems from a 2000 court order in Tacoma, Wash., barring him from harassing or using force against his wife and children.
Jim Wyda, Muhammad's attorney, noted that his client has so far only been charged with the firearms offense, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The arguments in Maryland will concern ''whether his rights are complied with,'' Wyda said, ''before he's taken back to face the charge in Washington.''
Michael Bouchard, special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, said a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle found in Muhammad's car had been linked by ballistics to 11 of the 14 Washington-are shootings, including one in which no one was injured.
The AR-15 is the civilian form of the M-16 military assault rifle. As a soldier, Muhammad received a Marksmanship Badge with expert rating -- the highest of three ratings -- in use of the M-16, according to Army records. Police also found a scope and tripod in the car, a law enforcement source said.
Gesner did not mention the sniper killings at Muhammad's court appearance. Muhammad, in handcuffs and a green prison jumpsuit, spoke little during the 10-minute hearing. When Gesner asked if he understood the charge, he quietly answered, ''Yes, ma'am.''
The Seattle Times quoted federal sources as saying Muhammad and Malvo had been known to speak sympathetically about the hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Muhammad, a veteran of the Gulf War, was a convert to Islam, according to the Times. He changed his name last year from John Allen Williams, years after he converted to Islam, investigators told the Times.
There was no indication they were linked to al-Qaida or any terrorist group, authorities said.
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined developments that led to the arrests:
On Thursday, Oct. 17, a Montgomery County, Md., public information officer received a call from someone they now believe was the sniper. The caller referred to a robbery-homicide in ''Montgomery'' -- not, in itself, enough to prompt authorities to call police in that Alabama city.
The next day, a priest in Ashland, Va., received a call from someone who said he was God and mentioned a crime in Montgomery, Ala., according to the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. Apuzzo said the priest, Monsignor William V. Sullivan, dismissed the call as a prank.
After a shooting in Ashland on Saturday, task force members visited Sullivan at his church Sunday, according to Apuzzo, and the priest told them about the call.
Montgomery, Ala., police said they were contacted by the task force Sunday.
However, the law enforcement source gave a different account. The source said a priest contacted the task force Friday after getting a call from the sniper.
Fingerprint evidence from a Sept. 21 robbery attempt outside a liquor store in Montgomery, which killed one employee and wounded another, then led police to Malvo and Muhammad.
Police traced Malvo to a house in Tacoma, Wash., where he had been living with Muhammad, a source told the AP. Police searched the property Wednesday.
Police announced late Wednesday they were looking for the men and their car, and a few hours later a motorist and an attendant spotted the car at the rest stop and called police.
The men's 1990 Chevrolet Caprice is co-owned by a New Jersey resident, Nathanel O. Osbourne; FBI officials said he was being sought as a witness.
The car has an opening in its trunk that would permit someone to lie inside and fire the rifle while remaining hidden, two federal law enforcement sources told The Associated Press. That could explain the lack of spent shell casings in most of the shootings, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Investigators now believe the Caprice was involved in all the shootings. Sightings of white vans and box trucks were attributed to erroneous witness accounts.
That confusion may have cost lives. On Oct. 8, Baltimore police officers approached the Caprice and found Muhammad sleeping in the vehicle, spokeswoman Ragina Averella said. That was the day after a 13-year-old boy in Bowie was wounded as he arrived at school.
But no action was taken, sources told The (Baltimore) Sun, because investigators were looking for a white van. In the weeks after, four more people were shot by the sniper, three fatally.
The sniper left notes claiming to be God, and warning that children were not safe ''anywhere, at any time.''