More than 13 months after his second wife gained custody of their three children in Washington state and fled into hiding in Maryland, Muhammad was arrested at a Maryland rest stop by law enforcement officials searching for the sniper who killed 10 people, wounded three and boasted that no children were safe anywhere.
"He was angry at how he was treated over his kids," said John S. Mills, the Tacoma, Wash., lawyer who represented Muhammad as he tried unsuccessfully to find his children and regain custody. "He was never able to locate her. That went on for two or three months. Then he vanished."
Muhammad, born John Allen Williams, changed his name after converting to Islam. In court papers, his ex-wife Mildred said that the couple, who married in 1988, were members of the Nation of Islam and attended a mosque in Seattle.
Kay Whitlock, a retiree who lives behind the Tacoma house she said his family occupied for four or five years, recalled Muhammad as a disciplinarian with his children but said she never observed him being violent. The John Muhammad arrested by the sniper task force "isn't the John that I knew," Whitlock said. "Hearing who it was was a shock."
Muhammad and his wife were always pleasant, Whitlock said. She and other neighbors remember his fondness for shooting. At one point, he bought a pellet or BB gun for his oldest child, John Jr., set up a target in the garage and taught him how to shoot, Whitlock said.
His second wife filed for divorce in 1999. Although they had joint custody of the children, he eventually took the children out of the country, according to court papers. Once Mildred Muhammad got them back, Whitlock said, she "went underground," Whitlock said.
John Muhammad was devastated by the loss of his children and increasingly frustrated when he couldn't find them, Mills said, but he did not seem irrational.
"He was a very normal, thoughtful, reasonable guy," Mills said. "He tried diligently to work it out. I don't know what people are supposed to do when they run up against a system where they are banging their heads up against the wall and there is no remedy."
Muhammad grew up in Louisiana and graduated from Scotlandville High School in 1978, according to East Baton Rouge Parish school records. He enlisted in the Army National Guard of Louisiana that year, at 17, according to personnel documents released yesterday under the Freedom of Information Act.
He was released from active duty in February 1979 and discharged in July 1985, enlisting in the regular Army in late 1985. He served in Operation Desert Storm. A Pentagon official described Muhammad's service as "pretty unremarkable" and noted that "he barely made it" to sergeant, the rank at which he retired.