Police Arrest 2 Men in Sniper Case
FREDERICK, Md. (AP) Two men, one of them described as an Army veteran who recently converted to Islam, were arrested at a roadside rest stop Thursday for questioning in the three-week wave of deadly sniper attacks that have terrorized the Washington, D.C. area.
The arrests linked to a telephoned boast about a deadly Alabama robbery raised hopes of a conclusion to the intensive and often frustrating investigation of the shootings that have killed 10 people and critically wounded three others since Oct. 2.
The men taken into custody were not immediately charged in the sniper attacks, but authorities made it clear the arrests were considered pivotal. A newspaper report said the men were motivated by anti-American bias; police in Washington state, where the men recently lived, said they were not part of any organized group.
President Bush was told that federal authorities were reasonably sure the case had been solved, a senior administration official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
``There's a strong feeling these people are related to the sniper shootings,'' said Douglas Gansler, state's attorney in Maryland's Montgomery County, where the sniper task force is based. Asked if he believed the sniper was still at large, he said ``no.''
The arrests occurred hours after authorities descended on a home in Tacoma, Wash., believed to hold clues important to the investigation. They then issued a nationwide alert for the car, spotted by a motorist and an attendant at the rest stop.
Charles Moose, the Montgomery County police chief who is leading the investigation, had said John Allen Muhammad, 42, was being sought for questioning in the slayings and called him ``armed and dangerous.'' Muhammad was said to be traveling with a juvenile, identified by a law enforcement as John Lee Malvo, 17.
The key break, authorities said, was a phone call to the sniper task force tip line suggesting investigators check out a liquor store robbery in ``Montgomery.'' The caller claimed credit for both the robbery and the sniper shootings, officials said.
Investigators checking the tip matched it with the Sept. 21 liquor store robbery in Montgomery, Ala., in which two employees were shot, one fatally. Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright said Malvo's fingerprint was found at the scene on a magazine about weapons.
Police then traced Malvo to a home in Tacoma, Wash., that was searched Wednesday by authorities looking into the sniper shootings. Malvo had been living in the home with Muhammad, a source told the AP, also on condition of anonymity.
A composite sketch of the suspect in the liquor-store shootings was made and ``there are some very good similarities'' to Malvo, Montgomery Police Chief John Wilson said. He said the gun used in Alabama was not the same as the one in the Washington, D.C.-area shootings, however.
Members of the sniper task force arrested the men without incident at 3:19 a.m. off I-70 in Frederick County, Md., about 50 miles northwest of the nation's capital, said Larry Scott, an agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. State police said the men offered no resistance.
``I'm confident that these are indeed the people'' sought in the killings, a law enforcement source told the AP.
The relationship between Malvo and Muhammad, who also goes by the name John Allen Williams, was not clear, but several newspapers reported that the teen is Muhammad's stepson.
The Seattle Times said Muhammad changed his name after converting to Islam.
Several federal sources told the Times that Muhammad and Malvo may have been motivated by anti-American sentiments in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Both were known to speak sympathetically about the men who hijacked jetliners over Washington, New York and Pennsylvania, the sources told the newspaper.
Neither man was believed to be associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network, the sources said.
The Times reported that Muhammad was stationed at Fort Lewis outside Tacoma in the 1980s, served in the Gulf War and was later stationed at Fort Ord, Calif. Malvo, who authorities said is a citizen of Jamaica, attended high school in Bellingham, Wash., last year.
The witnesses at the rest stop called police at 1 a.m. after they spotted the men sleeping inside one of the cars sought in the investigation a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with a New Jersey license plate. Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, said the car was registered to Muhammad at a Camden, N.J., address.
ATF spokesman Joseph Green said the car was being fingerprinted and dogs were sniffing it for explosives at the rest stop.
On Wednesday, FBI agents spent hours at the Tacoma home, eventually carting away a tree stump from the yard and other potential evidence in a U-Haul truck.
Scott, the ATF spokesman, said the stump would be brought to the agency's lab in Rockville, Md. On background, law enforcement sources said they believed the stump might contain bullets or fragments.
Several hours after the arrests, spokesmen at the Pentagon said they had no information and referred calls to the agencies handling the case. Defense officials had said last week that, at the task force investigators' request, the Army was searching its records of people trained as snipers for any former or current service member who might be involved in the shootings.
A Fort Lewis spokesman did not return a call for comment on whether Muhammad was stationed on the base.
FBI agents visited Bellingham High School, 90 miles north of Seattle, on Wednesday. Mayor Mark Asmundson told the Bellingham Herald the agents were apparently seeking information on a male teenager who once attended the school and an older man. He said both left the area about nine months ago.
Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll said his force had known about Malvo since December 2001, when a police officer at the high school filed a suspicious persons report because the youth arrived at the school without transcripts or other papers.
Carroll said investigators believed the two arrested men were acting on their own, not as part of a group.
Pfc. Chris Waters, a Fort Lewis soldier who lives across the street from the Tacoma home, said he called police after hearing gunshots in the neighborhood nearly every day in January.
``It sounded like a high-powered rifle such as an M-16,'' he said. ``Never more than three shots at a time. Pow. Pow. Pow.''
One of Muhammad's ex-wives, Mildred, was questioned by the FBI on Wednesday, said Adele Moses, who identified herself as the woman's sister. She said Mildred was living with her in Clinton, Md., southeast of Washington.