SNIPER: Inside the Hunt

In the End, Caprice Lost Its Invisibility

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By Michael E. Ruane and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 8, 2003

This is the fourth of five excerpts from "Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation."

With two names to go on, the vast law enforcement resources at the disposal of the sniper task force swung into action. Snapshots of Malvo from his arrest with his mother by the U.S. Border Patrol in December 2001 on immigration charges were transmitted across the country and copied by the hundreds. A picture of Muhammad was found, taken when he was detained by immigration officials in Miami in 2001, but it wasn't very clear.

Billy Sorukas was in his U.S. Marshals Service office in suburban Virginia, about to put in one of the long days for which he was famous. About 1 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 23, after hearing that Muhammad had once lived in California and had a driver's license, he called Ralph Garofalo, an old marshal friend in San Diego, where he had once worked.

"I need a favor," he told Garofalo.

About an hour later, Garofalo called back. "I got your picture," Garofalo said. It was the black-and-white shot of Muhammad -- squinting and dressed in military fatigues -- that was taken for his license. "How do you want it?"

Sorukas said to e-mail it as quickly as possible. What was the big hurry? Garofalo asked. "Take a good look at the picture," Sorukas said. "You're getting one of the first views of one of the snipers in D.C."

At 2:30 a.m., Sorukas contacted the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, in Clarksburg, W.Va., to request what was called an "off-line," or specialized, law enforcement computer sweep on Muhammad and Malvo that would turn up any contact they might have had with police. He had already asked Michael P. Moran, a marshal inspector working out of the task force command center in Rockville, to run Muhammad's name through the FBI's database of sniper leads. Moran called back to say there was one hit. Under the heading "Facts of Complaint," the entry briefly detailed the account of Robert Holmes, an old Army friend of Muhammad's who thought that a rifle the sniper might be using was similar to one that Muhammad had fired into a tree stump in Holmes's back yard in Tacoma, Wash. What floored Sorukas was the part about Muhammad's bitter divorce from a wife "who may reside in the Washington, D.C., area."

At 5 a.m., while Sorukas was trying to catch some sleep on his couch, a fax came in from Clarksburg. It was a brief reference to Muhammad's encounter with a Baltimore police officer outside a doughnut shop on Oct. 8. Sorukas couldn't tell from the entry what had happened. Brian Sheppard, a deputy U.S. marshal in Baltimore, was asked to see what he could find out.

In Baton Rouge, La., authorities interviewed Muhammad's relatives. In Tacoma, FBI agents played a recording of Malvo's call to the Rockville police for Holmes. They asked if the caller sounded like the teenager Holmes had seen with Muhammad. Holmes said, offhandedly, that bullets from Muhammad's rifle might still be in the tree trunk out back. If the investigators could get those bullets, they could compare them with the fragments recovered from the sniper's victims, and suddenly the tree trunk outside Holmes's modest house became a potentially critical piece of evidence.

But authorities didn't want to chance searching for the slugs in Holmes's yard. They might damage them. The task force issued instructions for the whole stump to be removed and flown east for proper analysis. But it had to be done discreetly. If the media found out and reported it, the killers could find out, too. Investigators at the task force wanted the removal done by a few guys in flannel shirts who would not arouse suspicion.

At the Top of the List

The FBI, meanwhile, tracked down Malvo's mother, Una James, and interviewed her in Seattle. They contacted a former girlfriend of Muhammad's in Tacoma and his former wife Mildred, in Clinton, whom they placed along with her children in protective custody. She would later conclude that the whole sniper spree was a cover fo

Muhammad and Malvo, however, were still invisible, still moving around. At 2:13 p.m. that day, they were in a Kmart at Georgia and Connecticut avenues in Aspen Hill, a quarter-mile from where Ride On bus driver Conrad E. Johnson had been slain Oct. 22. They bought a canvas duffel bag for $22.99. The day before, police searching the Johnson scene had found a suspicious black duffel bag in the woods not far from a note from the sniper. It was empty except for a pocketknife in a nylon case, a Q-tip and a pepper shaker. They had seized it as evidence.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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