John Muhammad’s Meltdown: The Story of the Beltway Sniper

The Seattle Times
November 10, 2002
By Alex Tizon

The smile was absent that day. The million-dollar smile he flashed whenever it served him, the gleam of winsome pearl that charmed women and men from Baton Rouge to Bellingham.

On that day 14 months ago, inside a small courtroom in Tacoma, John Allen Muhammad could barely gather his thoughts. He was dumbfounded. He was losing his children.

“Your honor, could I say something?” Muhammad said, his voice unexpectedly soft but unhesitating.

“Just a moment, sir,” said Judge Mark Gelman. The judge was all business. He explained that the sole reason for the hearing was to enforce a court order giving full custody of Muhammad’s three children to their mother, Mildred.

“Your honor,” a flustered Muhammad interjected. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

The judge explained further. Muhammad responded: “Are you telling me the reason I won’t be able to keep my children is because I don’t have the proper paperwork?” Before the hearing was over, he asked the judge two more times: “So I can’t see my children?”

In the odyssey of the man accused as one of the two Beltway snipers — his apparent descent into a calculating kind of madness — this 18-minute hearing, tape-recorded on Sept. 4, 2001, in Room 260 of the Pierce County Courthouse, may have been the tipping point. His life had already plunged into disarray and bitterness. But the final loss of his children, according to those who knew him best, was “the snap,” the veering onto the road of no return. Muhammad, 41, took a 17-year-old boy, Lee Boyd Malvo, with him. Their odyssey would apparently span the continent, leaving at least 14 people dead, five wounded and a nation shuddering once again at its vulnerabilities. Muhammad’s friends and family wonder whether they ever really knew the man who last month smiled so handsomely on the front pages of every newspaper.

“I thought he was a man of high integrity,” says longtime Tacoma neighbor Leo Dudley, emphasizing the word “thought.” Some media profiles have depicted Muhammad as a mastermind, a Svengali, a cunning strategist who had crafted his car into what Newsweek described as a “Rube Goldberg killing machine.”

Yet more evidence provides a contrasting impression: Muhammad as a pained, pathological grifter whose only genius was his personal predilection to commit violence from a distance.

Though he captured the nation’s spotlight for almost a month — which may speak mostly to the rarity of serial sniping — it’s clear that Muhammad was no master, except to Malvo. And for quite some time, he was of questionable mind. He may have been more bully than Svengali. His so-called killing machine was a $250 junker with a fold-down seat and a hole in the trunk. If anything was Rube Goldbergesque, it would be the persona of Muhammad himself, a tangle of fictions held together by separate strands of disaffection.

He was a man of multiple identities, exemplified literally by his use of as many as 22 aliases. More than that, he was radically different, even contradictory, things to different people: Devout worshiper and chronic adulterer. Righteous father and habitual liar. Gentle neighbor and gun nut. Finally, decorated veteran and self-styled enemy of the state. Who was he at the core? More will emerge over time, but the 12 months before the first Beltway sniper attack — the countdown to his own demise, much of which took place in the narrow corridor between Bellingham and Tacoma — reveal that he was fueled by a number of compulsions. He was bitter against the United States, just as he was against the forces that separated him from his children. He was an angry ex-husband, and an angry member of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim who considered the U.S. a terrorist state. He defended the 9/11 attacks, which happened seven days after the fateful custody hearing.

The degree to which his personal bitterness merged with militant ideology, or whether one exacerbated the other, may never be known. Muhammad himself may not know. Why did Muhammad and Malvo focus their attack on the Washington, D.C., area? Was it to paralyze the control center of the nation Muhammad had fought for and had come to despise? Was it to extort the $10 million he and Malvo demanded in one of their taunting missives to police? Or was it, as his ex-wife Mildred and her family believe, a perversely circuitous plot to kill her? She lived in hiding with their children in Clinton, Md., and Muhammad had located them.

In the end, if he is convicted, the conclusion may be that Muhammad’s motivation was as multifaceted as the man himself. Maybe he was an angry father, an angry Black Muslim and an extortionist. Or maybe he was simply angry. At least one man in his past is not surprised that Muhammad now sits in solitary confinement in a Virginia jail, that he awaits trial for murder and that he almost certainly faces the death penalty.

Retired Sgt. Kip Berentson, more than a decade ago, intuited that Muhammad might someday turn to murder. Berentson served over him in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Neither one liked the other. One incident in particular caused Berentson to conclude that Muhammad was a bomb ticking. Since the incident, involving a grenade, Berentson has kept a piece of paper with Muhammad’s name and dog-tag number in his wallet. “In the back of my mind,” he said, “I knew our paths would cross. Like, ‘Until we meet again.’ ”

When news broke of Muhammad’s arrest Oct. 24 at a Maryland rest stop, a part of Berentson recoiled in terror; another simmered in guilt. He knew. “That face has been in my mind for 11 years.”

THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS

At the time of the custody hearing in Tacoma, Muhammad was living on and off in a homeless shelter 122 miles to the north, at the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham. It’s in the waterfront district, a gritty, industrial section of town. The mission sits like a three-story box across the street from the factory where Georgia-Pacific makes toilet paper.

Malvo, the Jamaican whom Muhammad had molded into a surrogate son since they connected in the Caribbean the year before, lived with him at the shelter until June of this year. The two became familiar figures in the area’s nooks and watering holes. They stood out, first because they were black in a very white town, and second, because they cut such striking figures. Malvo’s smile was even more winsome than Muhammad’s. Both were handsome, well-mannered, clean and not merely fit but muscular. Standing 6 inches taller at a sinewy 6-foot-1, Muhammad was the obvious leader. He walked with chest out and back straight, with a countenance that beamed a soldierly self-assurance.

“Sturdy” is how one friend describes him. He had the ready smile, but rarely laughed or broke out of a certain seriousness. “Intense” is how others describe him. Like someone with a calling.

When the shelter shooed away the overnighters at 7 each morning, Muhammad would wander into a nearby tavern and sip $2 Budweisers. “He’d start right in,” says Millie Ulmer, morning bartender at the Waterfront Tavern. “He did three or four sometimes, then he went up the street” to another tavern. He would sit three stools from the cigarette machine. Regulars remember him as polite, friendly, a bit aloof. When he wasn’t watching one of the many TVs, he would appear to be thinking. He seemed to have a lot on his mind.

In the afternoons, Muhammad and Malvo would walk to Stuart’s Coffee Shop, a few blocks away, and play chess. They would work out at the YMCA, spending two to three hours lifting weights. Muhammad reportedly bench-pressed 350 pounds, nearly twice his weight. For four months after the custody hearing that took away his three children, ages 8, 10 and 12, Muhammad went through the motions of trying to win them back legally. He journeyed from Bellingham to Tacoma once a week to consult with an attorney who’d agreed to take his case pro bono.

He knew it was probably futile. Mildred had left the state with the kids and had gone into hiding. Legal maneuvering would do no good if they couldn’t be found. Muhammad knew this from first-hand knowledge. In March 2000, in the midst of the acrimonious divorce, Muhammad had abducted the children and gone into his own hiding, first in Antigua, then in Bellingham. He had the kids for 17 months, until a Whatcom County sheriff’s deputy tracked them down at the elementary school where they were enrolled under fictitious names. Then, the custody hearing, and now it was Mildred’s turn to disappear. Months passed, and Muhammad’s trips to his lawyer became less frequent. In February of this year, he stopped going altogether.

“He dropped off the radar screen,” says the lawyer, John Mills.

Muhammad was devastated; Mills knew that. He, along with friends and family on both sides of the country, attests to Muhammad’s fondness for children, his own most of all. Muhammad fathered at least five children with three different women in his life, but it was the last three, the ones he had with Mildred, with whom he felt most bonded. They were his soft spot. They were his one pure love. After it became clear that he would not get them back through the courts, that he might never get them back, or even find them, something inside him melted down. “A nervous breakdown” is how one of his closest friends, Robert Holmes of Tacoma, describes it: “I know John lost it because he lost his kids.”

But even Holmes had no idea to what depth Muhammad’s anger had plunged, nor to what lengths he would go for revenge. Police believe Muhammad and Malvo may have committed their first killing during the period of this meltdown. In starting a pattern of criminal sloppiness, the pair apparently killed the wrong person.

Sometime during the day of Feb. 16, police allege, Muhammad or Malvo or both knocked on the door of the Tacoma home of Isa Nichols. Nichols had kept the books for Muhammad when he ran a mechanic’s service, and had sided with Mildred in the custody dispute. She had helped police try to track down Muhammad and the kids. But Nichols was out on an errand when the knock came. Her niece, 21-year-old Keenya Cook, paused from changing her baby’s diaper to answer the door. Cook was shot in the face and died in a heap. It was purely a revenge-murder, police say. As pure as it could be in the increasingly murky world of John Allen Muhammad. Ideology or hatred for America played no role. That particular hate was a whole other cauldron coming to a boil.

A DETONATION

A few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Muhammad, still living intermittently at the mission, wandered into the Horseshoe Restaurant, which boasts of being the oldest place in Bellingham for “great food, fine tobacco and a place to meet with friends over a good beer.” He picked a stool at the bar in the Ranch Room. A few stools away, on the other side of the L-shaped counter, a small group of locals sipped their own morning beers and vented their outrage at Osama bin Laden. One said the United States should bomb the hell out of al-Qaida. Muhammad took exception. In a calm, even tone, he told the men that the CIA had sponsored a lot of terrorism in the world, and that the U.S. was itself a terrorist state. The group glared at the stranger who interjected himself into a private conversation.

One man came unglued. He was a local fisherman and crabber named Drew Sandilands. He is 47, with weathered hands and a wiry, slender-strong build. If anyone in the group could have physically challenged Muhammad, it was Sandilands. And if anyone had reason to, it was he: His cousin was the airline pilot of one of the jets that was hijacked and slammed into the Trade Center. Sandilands told Muhammad to get out or he would “get his ass whupped.” Another man in the group, Tracy Ridpath, held Sandilands back. As calmly as he had walked in, Muhammad walked out into daylight and out of trouble. Sandilands followed him outside, but Muhammad was already gone. The fisherman later told his buddies that he had a feeling Muhammad was a terrorist.

Others in Bellingham, post 9/11, had the same feeling. Three people, on three separate occasions, reported their suspicions to the FBI. Their calls went unheeded. The bureau says they weren’t compelling enough to investigate. One of the calls came from the Rev. Al Archer just a month after the terrorist attacks. Archer, director of the Lighthouse Mission, observed Muhammad for two months before contacting the feds.

It was Muhammad’s polite demeanor, excessive to the point of phoniness; it was his smoothness and businesslike air; it was the big duffel bag that he carried with him everywhere; it was his soldierly control over the young Malvo; most of all, it was the trips he took to the East Coast, Louisiana, the Caribbean. Not many men at the shelter got phone calls from travel agents. It was as if Muhammad was using the shelter as a base of operation.

Indeed, it seems, Muhammad was a man on a mission. Independent of any known terrorist group, it appears, Muhammad began his own sort of jihad. His surname had not always been Muhammad. He was born John Allen Williams and raised by relatives in a strict Baptist home in Louisiana. While stationed in the Persian Gulf, he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the tale of a street-tough ex-con who became a leading minister in the Nation of Islam. The Nation was an American creation, an amalgam of black nationalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine and certain Islamic teachings, launched in the 1930s. It is, many mainstream Muslims say, a heretical offshoot of their faith. The Nation of Islam teaches that the black man is the God of the Universe, the father of civilization, and the white man is the Devil. An impending Armageddon, the sect teaches, will end with the destruction of, specifically, the United States, the bastion of the Devil.

By 1992, while stationed at Fort Ord, Calif., Williams was drawn to the sect led by Louis Farrakhan and became a follower. In 1997, while living in Tacoma, he officially converted to the faith, slipping out of his mechanic’s overalls and dressing in a suit and tie to attend weekly meetings of a Nation of Islam study group in Seattle. Like many in the Nation, he started calling himself Muhammad and legally changed his name last year.

The Nation’s focus on sobriety and family values was for a while a powerful influence on Muhammad, friends say. He reached out to two sons from other women, whom he had neglected. He doted over the three children he’d had with Mildred. For a time, until he apparently reverted to philandering, his marriage seemed strong. Ultimately, though, there are signs that the Nation — and, in particular, its strong anti-American message — had a darker influence on a troubled mind.

Though the controversial Farrakhan has condemned the snipers’ shooting spree — one of the victims was an African-American man with his own ties to the Nation of Islam — the sect’s language echoes through one of the notes left for police by the alleged Beltway Snipers. “Call me God,” the note reads. Muhammad’s Black Muslim brothers at the Seattle study group routinely greeted each other as “God,” a former member says. The sniper note ends with, “Word is bond,” a quote contained in the Nation of Islam’s main text, the Supreme Wisdom. When The System took Muhammad’s children away in the spring of 2001, it may have accelerated his hunger to destroy it. The Armageddon was approaching.

THE PERFECT SILENCER

In the months after the custody hearing, Muhammad and Malvo were hatching plots. They revealed aspects to numerous people, but not always consistently or truthfully.

They told at least one friend in Tacoma about plans to build a silencer for a rifle, and they expounded with contained glee on the lethal possibilities. The pair even practiced target-shooting, neighbors say, in a backyard of a densely populated section of Tacoma. Back in Bellingham, Muhammad spoke to a gunsmith, Glen Chapman, about altering a rifle. Chapman recalls Muhammad’s story about shortening the firearm for mailing purposes as “the phoniest thing I ever heard.”

Muhammad divulged graphic details of his plans to a man he met at the YMCA — so graphic that the man got scared, cut off communication and eventually reported Muhammad and Malvo to the FBI and police. The man, Harjeet Singh, 35, is a New Delhi-born Sikh who has lived in Bellingham since 1989. He got to know Muhammad and Malvo in the weight room. With time, Muhammad greeted Singh like a Muslim brother: “As-salamu ‘alaikum.” Peace be with you, in Arabic. Singh replied, “Wa ‘alaikum salam.” Peace be with you, too.

Singh says Muhammad praised the 9/11 hijackers for causing more damage to the United States than an army could have done. Singh himself did not condone the terrorist attacks — “250 people from India died in the World Trade Center,” he says — but he shared Muhammad’s outrage over decades of U.S.-sponsored violence overseas.

It wasn’t until an afternoon in May that Singh realized Muhammad’s anger was altogether a different animal from his own. As the three of them sipped tea in a cafeteria near the YMCA, Muhammad and Malvo scanned the room cautiously. Muhammad then pulled some items from a duffel bag. Among the items, Singh says, were a shiny 8-inch pistol silencer, a blueprint for a rifle silencer and a 20-inch axle rod that Muhammad said could be bored and converted into a rifle silencer.

Muhammad asked Singh if he knew anyone in the Sikh community in Canada who could do the job. Singh said he didn’t, and besides, why did Muhammad need a silencer? Singh says Muhammad replied that he wanted to shoot a tanker truck on the highway and make it explode, or shoot a police officer and then, as officers gathered for the memorial service, set off a bomb, killing as many officers as possible.

“They were serious,” Singh says. “I got scared.”

From that point, he took pains to avoid the pair, even instructing his wife to tell them he no longer lived with her. He says he hasn’t seen the two since that day in the cafeteria, but he recalls another conversation that has become more haunting in retrospect. Sometime last spring, in late March or April, Muhammad went out of town and Malvo spent the night with Singh and his family in their north Bellingham apartment. Without his father figure around, Malvo turned loquacious. Singh says Malvo told him that he and Muhammad had already shot and killed two golfers in Arizona.

Singh thought Malvo was bluffing, and didn’t give the comment much thought. But last week, Arizona investigators revealed that they are investigating a mysterious murder last spring for a possible tie to the Beltway Snipers. A golfer had been shot from a distance by a high-powered rifle, on a Tucson golf course on March 16. At that time, Muhammad and Malvo were in Tucson visiting Muhammad’s sister, who lived just a few blocks from the course. If the duo were responsible for that slaying, it means that by the time they showed off their duffel bag of goodies to Singh in May, they may have already killed at least two people — Keenya Cook in Tacoma, and the golfer, Jerry Taylor, in Tucson — and possibly more.

Meanwhile, between their various trips, the pair continued to work out at the Bellingham Y daily, sometimes twice a day. They would eat lunch at the Community Food Co-op. One week in April, they bunked down at an apartment with some students from Western Washington University they had met at a coffee shop. Some afternoons, Malvo would go to the library to do research on guns. Singh recalls that, too: Malvo was obsessed with guns.

FATHERLESS BOYS

It may yet turn out that Malvo played more of a role in the shootings than a mere minion following orders. He allegedly wrote the sniper notes and made key phone calls to police. Only his fingerprints were found on the rifle used in the Beltway shootings. Police now believe Malvo pulled the trigger in at least some of the shootings, if not most or all of them. How much he did under pressure and how much was self-driven remains unclear. Muhammad was the clear authority, but “it’s not going to turn out that (Malvo) is some robot,” said one federal investigator. In fact, those who know them say, the two have much in common — including difficult, fatherless childhoods.

In Muhammad’s case, his mother died of cancer when he was 5 and his father abandoned him and his four siblings. They were raised in Baton Rouge, La., by an aunt and by his grandfather, a former prison officer who beat the children when they crossed him. Malvo was raised by an itinerant mother, Una James. Although she seems to have been dedicated to him, her days were spent trying to feed, house and clothe them both, first in their native Jamaica, and then on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It was there that Muhammad and Malvo connected.

In the middle of his divorce, Muhammad had taken his three children and fled to a house on the island made available to him by a friend. Among his activities there, authorities say, was trafficking in false passports and immigration visas. Una James, who was consumed by a desire to live in the United States, was one of his customers. She paid Muhammad for false ID and headed to Florida, planning to retrieve her son once she got settled. Malvo, left to fend for himself, gravitated to Muhammad. They fit hand-in-glove, moving naturally into a father-son relationship. Neighbors eventually heard Malvo call Muhammad “Dad.”

Muhammad had a soft side for fatherless boys. But his way of being a father would strike some as being a drill sergeant. His years in the Army apparently had given him a paradigm through which he would relate to the rest of the world. Even his own kids were treated like his troops, and Malvo, the new recruit, moved in with them in the tiny house the family occupied on Antigua. At times, Malvo showed flashes of violence, neighbors say. One, Malvia McKen, recounts that when her 5-year-old son touched Malvo’s basketball, the teen struck him in the stomach with a piece of pipe. After about a year and a half on the island, Muhammad returned to Washington state with his natural children and Malvo, with the false identity of his natural son. That identity stayed with him. In Bellingham and from that point forward, Muhammad introduced his companion as his son.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service later discovered that Malvo had entered the U.S. illegally, and he was to face an INS hearing this month. Some speculate that the young man’s probable deportation might have also played a role in the timing of the pair’s long and final road trip. In the end, it might have seemed to them, they had only each other.

‘HE COULD GET ANYTHING’

How they funded their various cross-country trips — indeed, how Muhammad made a living — is a puzzle still being pieced together. Based on Muhammad’s bragging to various friends and relatives over the years, he was a mechanic, teacher, franchise owner, real-estate baron, music producer and Special Forces sniper. Some were outright lies; others contained a kernel of truth. He was indeed an auto mechanic. During the most stable part of his marriage to Mildred in Tacoma during the 1990s, Muhammad ran an auto-repair business that thrived for a while, then fell apart.

Close friends say that as the couple’s marriage disintegrated, primarily because of Muhammad’s chronic womanizing, so did the business. Mildred’s brother, Charles Green, who lived with the family for stretches at a time, has said Muhammad made a habit of taking sex from female customers as pay for his auto services. Family friends in Tacoma corroborate the story. During the time Muhammad ran the business, Express Car/Truck Mechanic Services Inc., he was also known in Tacoma as a man who sold black-market car parts, stolen goods and counterfeit documents.

Some of that continued on Antigua. As former Antiguan police officer Augustin Shepherd said about Muhammad: “Anything he wants, he can get it.” As in Tacoma, whatever scams Muhammad ran on Antigua remained small-time, limited to a small circle of clients. Neither his legitimate businesses nor his cons lived up to Muhammad’s bragging. In court documents, he said he left the island because it was too backward and he had no means of supporting his children.

Back stateside, Muhammad, along with Malvo, apparently soon found another means of obtaining cash: hitting the road, killing and robbing. Muhammad took to calling his charge by a new nickname: “Sniper.” Malvo was seen in Bellingham in April wearing a T-shirt with the insignia “BCRA Sniper ’97.” The initials stand for British Columbia Rifle Association. No one at the association knows how Malvo got the T-shirt.

THE FINAL TRIP

The people at the Lighthouse Mission would see Muhammad and Malvo for the last time in June, about a month after the meeting in the cafeteria with Singh. Whatever plot the two had developed by then, it was about to shift into a higher gear. From that point, more than ever, the pair lived like vagabonds, staying with various friends and acquaintances for brief periods, then moving.

They appeared to spend most of the early summer in Tacoma, painting houses and sometimes staying in a duplex owned by Robert Holmes, one of Muhammad’s closest friends. Holmes and Muhammad had met as soldiers when both were stationed at Fort Lewis. Holmes, also a mechanic, was a big man, a former Golden Gloves boxer and someone who could deal with Muhammad as an equal.

One day in June, Muhammad showed Holmes a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, a civilian form of the M-16 military assault rifle. Holmes said Muhammad told him he was going to take it to a firing range for “zeroing,” which means aligning the scope to shoot accurately. “Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?” Muhammad told Holmes. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that the gun used in the Beltway shootings had “disappeared” — likely stolen — from a Tacoma gun store called Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply last summer. It was a Bushmaster .223.

Muhammad took a rifle, perhaps that one, when he and Malvo rode a Greyhound to Baton Rouge in July. Family members recall the two appeared tired and haggard. Once rested, Muhammad brimmed with stories that, in hindsight, sound almost delusional. He showed the rifle he kept in a case inside his duffel bag. He claimed to be a member of an elite Special Forces team on a secret mission. Malvo, he said, was part of the team. He asked where in Baton Rouge he could buy ammunition for his weapon.

The Special Forces didn’t supply ammunition? one relative wondered.

During the visit, “I’m freaking out a little,” says Edward Holiday, a cousin who once idolized Muhammad. “He’s not in a hotel, needs a haircut, he’s not clean and he has no car. I thought, John is running from something.” During that visit to his hometown, Muhammad seemed to go out of his way to talk to and visit with people he hadn’t seen in years — old classmates, distant relatives, acquaintances. In some cases, he spoke and behaved as if he were acting out a final farewell. And as he did so, he wrote his own eulogy, built largely on lies: He and Mildred were still together, living in the Virgin Islands. He had bought her a Jaguar. He had other houses in Canada and in Washington state.

Muhammad and Malvo left Baton Rouge sometime in August. They told everybody their final destinations were Washington, D.C., and eventually Jamaica. (The accused Beltway Snipers would later demand $10 million from the federal government to be placed in a bank account in Jamaica). But before heading East, the pair briefly went back West, where Muhammad eyed a 1965 Lincoln Continental at a Tacoma garage. His interest focused on the size of the car’s trunk. But at $3,500, the Lincoln was out of his range.

In the first days of September, police say, Muhammad and Malvo made their way to Trenton, N.J. On Sept. 10, Muhammad, with the help of a friend now in custody, bought the now-infamous blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice for $250 from a place called, portentously, Sure Shot Auto Sales.

Muhammad and Malvo put in a lot of miles in the month of September. They looped south to Alabama and Louisiana, then to the D.C. area. Police say they left a bloody trail along the way. Authorities have linked the duo to at least five shootings that month — three in Maryland, one in Alabama and one in Louisiana. Another September murder, in Atlanta, is suspected to be their work as well. Some appear to have been committed at close range, the others from a distance. The motive for these shootings appears on the surface to be robbery, but some investigators say there were the beginnings of a “sport aspect” in these assaults. Muhammad and Malvo, it seemed, had developed a taste for shooting human beings.

LEARNING TO KILL

“Sniping plays into the notion of the killing act as a ‘game,’ ” says Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon, a forensic psychologist in Ohio who has consulted in about 180 death-penalty cases. In 1993, Smalldon performed one of the most comprehensive psychological evaluations ever done on a homicidal sniper. The subject was Thomas Lee Dillon, known as the “Outdoorsman Sniper.” Dillon killed five outdoorsmen in the rural counties of southern Ohio in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Smalldon says there seem to be striking parallels in the personalities of Dillon and Muhammad: Both were profoundly disaffected, were preoccupied with control and dominance but bridled against authority. Both felt unappreciated by society and appeared to have passive-aggressive personalities, a tendency to express anger indirectly or in a nonconfrontational way.

The crime of sniping, which can be described as a passive-aggressive act, “has a certain kind of appeal to a certain kind of person,” Smalldon says. A criminal sniper purposefully avoids contact and objectifies the victim so that killing is, in Dillon’s words, “no more involving (physically and emotionally) than picking off a bottle at a dump.”

Both Dillon and Muhammad were passionately interested in guns, and both were engrossed, even defined, by the world of the military. The two men share these last two traits with nearly all of the high-profile sniper-killers of the past half-century: Charles Whitman, U.S. Marines, 14 dead and 31 wounded on the campus of the University of Texas in 1966. Mark Essex, U.S. Navy, nine dead and 19 wounded in and around New Orleans in 1972. Lee Harvey Oswald, U.S. Marines, one dead — the president of the United States — in 1963.

“The ability to watch a human being’s head explode and to do it again and again,” writes David Grossman, a former military psychologist who once helped develop programs to turn soldiers into more efficient killers, “that has to be learned.”

Once learned, some find it impossible to unlearn. In a recent essay, Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Tim O’Brien says: “If you get a guy who’s unbalanced, I don’t know if you’re able to re-teach that kind of person (civility and nonviolence) once something in him has been awakened by the whole environment that encouraged death.”

Snipers form a tiny subset in the world of serial killers, but they still conform to the general rule: Serial murderers do not stop until they are forced to stop or killed. It is the ultimate dark addiction, a true road of no return.

By the end of September, Muhammad and Malvo, now outfitted with a jerry-rigged shooting perch in the trunk of their Caprice, were well on their way down that road. Their body count may have already been as high as nine. Police had not yet connected the dots.

CRITICAL MASS

Retired Sgt. Berentson, the man who has kept Muhammad’s name and dog-tag number in his wallet for the past 11 years, says the road should have dead-ended for Muhammad years ago. Why Muhammad didn’t end up behind bars in 1991, neither Berentson nor anyone else in the U.S. Army’s 84th Engineering Company can explain. In the first months of that year, the unit was in the Middle East preparing for the ground-attack phase of the Gulf War.

The story, according to Berentson and at least two other former members of the 84th, was that Muhammad threw a thermite grenade into a tent housing 16 of his fellow soldiers. Thermite grenades — made of finely granulated aluminum mixed with a metal oxide, and blasting heat up to 1,200 degrees — are used to destroy equipment during battle. The attack could easily have killed or maimed, but all 16 in the tent, some coughing and choking, escaped unharmed. Berentson was in the tent. He says the grenade went off near him and near a staff sergeant with whom Muhammad had fought earlier that day. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, Berentson says, concluded Muhammad (then named Williams) was the lead suspect.

Muhammad was led away in handcuffs and eventually transferred to another company pending charges. He had been court-martialed twice before for lesser incidents while serving in the Louisiana National Guard. But an indictment over the grenade incident never materialized, and Muhammad’s Army file has no record of it. Muhammad’s side of the story, as told to his then-wife Mildred, was that after he was accused of the attack, he was hogtied and humiliated by his fellow soldiers in a way that he would never forgive or forget. The experience, Mildred told a Washington Post reporter, would change him permanently. Whatever the truth, there are former members of the 84th who are not only unsurprised by the horrific accusations now facing Muhammad, but who have been expecting something like this for years.

“He had a warped mind capable of doing it,” Berentson says. “I should have done more. Maybe it would have prevented the killings.”

In early October, Muhammad was seen in Clinton, Md., in the very neighborhood where Mildred and their children lived in hiding. Clinton is a suburban enclave about 15 miles southeast of the District of Columbia. At that point, at least three of the sniper shootings had occurred. Mildred on Friday went public with her belief that she was not only intended to be killed, but that she was the whole reason for the murder spree.

“This was an elaborate plan to make this look like I was a victim so he could come in as the grieving father and take the children,” she told The Washington Post. “They all died because of me.”

Mildred knew Muhammad perhaps better than anyone else. She knew what he was capable of doing. She was in the same courtroom with him on Sept. 4, 2001, as Muhammad expressed his incredulity at the judge’s ruling. It was the last time she saw her ex-husband before fleeing. Maybe it was something in his voice that day, as he asked the judge over and over: “So I can’t see my children?”

Long before Muhammad and Malvo’s first alleged killing, Mildred was already watchful. He had threatened to kill her before and, in some things, she knew he was fully capable of following through.

Early in the evening of Oct. 2, a 55-year-old man was shot and killed in the parking lot of a grocery store in nearby Wheaton, Md. The next day, five people would be shot and killed as they went about the ordinary movements of their lives — one mowing a lawn, one mailing a package, one crossing a street, two filling their cars with gas — all of them cut down by a distant evil, shattering entire webs of families and communities in an instant. The spree reached critical mass, and America would for the first time wake up to a horror whose boundaries have not yet found an end.

 

The reporters
This article was reported by Hal Bernton, David Heath, Susan Kelleher, Cheryl Phillips, Alex Tizon, Christine Willmsen and Duff Wilson, and written by Tizon. Reporters Janet Burkitt, Mike Carter and Christine Clarridge and researchers Phillip Buffington, Cheryl Morningstar and Miyoko Wolf also contributed.