It was a hectic afternoon at York Castle High in the mountains of northern Jamaica when Esmie McLeod bumped into a visitor she would never forget. The plump stranger had come to withdraw her son, Lee Malvo, from school. A new life awaited them.

McLeod, the school's vice principal, was rattled by the news. Malvo was smart and charming, a standout student who recited poetry at school talent shows and entertained his friends by mimicking TV cartoons. But he was also an insecure 14-year-old, McLeod thought, who had been repeatedly uprooted as his mother changed jobs.

"Why you keep moving your child?" McLeod demanded sharply. "You're lucky to have such a sweet boy."

The mother, beaming, assured her that she was moving her son to another Caribbean island for a better life.

But less than three years later, Malvo was sleeping on the floor of a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wash., a withdrawn teenager whose past had been erased and whose future looked empty. He dropped out of Bellingham High School after police questioned why he lacked an academic transcript and other basic documents. He was strangely silent in social encounters, letting his older companion, John Allen Muhammad, talk for both of them. And rarely did Muhammad let Malvo out of his sight.

In February, just two months later, a Tacoma, Wash., woman would be shot to death on her doorstep, the first of 21 shootings across the country in which Malvo and the ex-soldier he called "Dad" are now suspects.

How did the bright and bubbly youngster become a sullen and submissive drifter? Was he an emotionally wounded child forced to obey a domineering father figure, or did he quietly accept the odd routine of moving from place to place, living on fruit and vegetables and sleeping in cars and shelters?

That question will be central during Malvo's prosecution for one of October's 10 fatal sniper shootings in the Washington area, a process that will begin Tuesday when a Fairfax County judge decides whether the 17-year-old will be tried for murder as an adult.

The portrait of Malvo that emerges from dozens of interviews with relatives, acquaintances, teachers, classmates, landlords, social workers and shopkeepers in Jamaica, Antigua and the United States does not make clear whether he was being coerced by Muhammad or willingly followed him. Many who saw them together during the months leading up to the sniper shootings perceived Malvo's silent obedience as respect more than fear, although there were also signs the youth was worried about the hardships of their life on the road.

What is clear is that the seeds of Malvo's close relationship with Muhammad were sown long before the two met in mid-2000 on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The diligent and delightful Jamaican high school student was also a boy whose mother and father were absent during much of his childhood, and adults and school friends from Jamaica remember how he longed for a full-time parent. Muhammad filled that void, many of them now suggest.

Malvo's constant travels within the United States also fit a pattern established much earlier in his life. As a youngster in the Caribbean, he was often shuttled among relatives, friends and virtual strangers.

Even while Malvo was excelling in honors classes at York Castle High, McLeod worried that he lacked guidance and stability. He was left too often with people he barely knew, she said.

"This youngster was not taught to be afraid of strangers," McLeod said in an interview. "Any child exposed to that kind of instability would crave security and acceptance. He wanted a positive man."

An Unsteady Family The boy who would one day be accused of the sniper attacks was born Lee Boyd Malvo on Feb. 18, 1985, to Leslie Malvo, a mason, and Una James, a seamstress. The couple, who never married, lived in a trash-strewed, working-class neighborhood in the Jamaican capital.

When Malvo was about 3, the family's fortunes appeared to improve. They rented a two-bedroom wing of a home in a suburb of neat bungalows with white wrought-iron fences.

James doted on her son. "Him get everything. Because he her only child. At Christmas time, there were all these little trucks," recalled the owner of the home, Meredith Calvin, 68.

But the relationship between Una James and Leslie Malvo soon deteriorated. He left Jamaica to do masonry work in the Cayman Islands, sending money to the family.

After two years, he returned. To his astonishment, James was gone. "She had taken everything from the house," said Leslie Malvo, now 55.

The father, who has three other children by two other women, rarely saw his son over the years. James tried to keep them apart, the elder Malvo said. Still, the boy occasionally sought him out.

When Malvo was about 11, he arrived at his father's doorstep elated: He had scored top marks on his grade-school exams and been accepted at the well-regarded York Castle. The father thought his son was turning out well, despite the lack of a male guardian.

But the boy's schooling was constantly interrupted. James frequently changed jobs, often going abroad and leaving her son behind.

Some relatives said she had a relentless drive for a better life for her son and herself. Others called it a compulsion for change. James, 38, has not responded to repeated requests made through her lawyers for an interview.

When Malvo was 8 or 9, his mother brought him to her older sister's house in Endeavour, a village of zinc-roofed homes at the end of a rutted dirt road.

James and her son had been living on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, she explained, but the boy couldn't enroll in school because of problems with his legal status there.

The sister, Marie Lawrence, and her farmer husband raised Malvo for the next few years, along with their two older daughters. Malvo fit right in, an obedient boy who prayed twice a day with the family.

Neighbors remember Malvo spending his time at the Seventh-day Adventist Church or poring over his school books.

"It was all about God and his schoolwork," said friend Aldrich Bloomfield, 16. "He wanted to have a good career and help his family."

At the nearby Gibraltar All-Age School, where boys wore khaki uniforms, Malvo quickly became a standout. He had a passion for reading, even snatching scraps of paper off the ground to peruse.

"The personality was striking. You look at the kid and you know he's cut out to be something great in life," said one grade school teacher, Beverly Clark.

And Malvo was eager to please. Teachers recalled how he would stay after class to put chairs away and offer to carry an instructor's heavy bag.

Some now recall his eagerness in a different light. "He's willing to assist" adults, McLeod said. "So I can see people manipulating him."

James checked in periodically with her son's teachers and pressed him to study, relatives say. She was ambitious for him -- and for herself. Like many Jamaicans, she hoped to escape poverty by leaving the country to work, investing her earnings bit by bit in a home in Jamaica where she, her ailing mother and Malvo could live.

About 1996, she paid nearly $3,000 for a piece of land in the southern Jamaican parish of St. Elizabeth. Gradually, a cinder-block skeleton rose from the red clay earth. But construction stopped more than a year ago.

Relatives and acquaintances wondered why James left Malvo so often and discouraged him from having contact with his father. Her sister, Lawrence, understands.

The two sisters' own parents split when they were young, leaving the girls with their impoverished mother. "We grew up without a father. We don't know father-love," Lawrence said. James didn't realize that Malvo needed it, she said.

One School to Another Malvo entered the 1,000-student York Castle High in fall 1996. As the school year ended, he announced he would be leaving. But after a semester's absence, he was suddenly back.

The reason he had missed the fall 1997 semester was that his mother had gone to St. Maarten again. Before leaving, she had brought Malvo to the home of a 21-year-old cousin, Semone Powell, in central Jamaica. Powell agreed to take him in, enrolling him at nearby Spalding High School.

James suddenly turned up that December, saying she had been deported from St. Maarten and was reclaiming her son. Powell was devastated. "Why take this kid moving and moving and moving?" Powell yelled.

But James was adamant. Her son went back to York Castle, living with a family that took in boarders. He spent the next two years bouncing around, staying with relatives, teachers and others.

Many of Malvo's guardians and relatives noted how he longed for a male figure in his life and gravitated toward older men in the homes or neighborhoods where he lived.

When Malvo was about 12, James took him for a brief visit to her birthplace, Jointwood. It was the only time Malvo met his maternal grandfather, and relatives recall how they bonded.

"They cooked together, ate together," said a cousin, Rose Nembhard, 28. "Lee was crying when he was going away."

Toward the end of his time at York Castle, friends noticed a change in Malvo. He had always been interested in religion and spent hours talking with friends about the Bible and the concept of evil. Now, he felt it was time to commit to his beliefs.

Malvo stopped swearing and tried to be more forgiving, recalled Onyeka Nevins, 17, one of his best high school friends. For example, when an older boy threw him to the ground during a cricket match, Malvo got up and walked off.

At the end of his third year at York Castle, Malvo told his friends he was leaving again -- this time for good. "I'm going with my mother" to Antigua, where she had found work and a home for them, a happy Malvo said.

A New Father Figure Malvo made the short flight to Antigua on July 9, 1999, to join his mother there.

He was soon enrolled in 10th grade at the Seventh-day Adventist School, and James earned money for the two by putting in a dozen or more hours a day selling chicken and drinks at a roadside grill.

At the 640-student school, Malvo immediately made his mark. He worshiped with his classmates, played cricket and excelled in physics, chemistry, biology, geography and technical drawing.

In April 2000, Muhammad arrived in Antigua from Tacoma with his three children and developed a reputation as a smuggler of Jamaicans into the United States. Authorities say he provided James with fraudulent U.S. travel documents she would later use to get to Florida.

Soon after Malvo began 11th grade in September 2000, his mother surprised their new landlord by announcing her plans to return to Jamaica to visit her ill mother. The boy, she said, would stay behind, alone.

James left Antigua in late 2000 or early 2001 and didn't return. Malvo lived at the two-bedroom house by himself for about three months. No rent was paid. The landlord eventually shut off the utilities, and Malvo moved in with Muhammad and his children.

With James gone from the island, the Jamaican honor student and the former Desert Storm soldier cemented their bond, and Muhammad's influence over the teenager started to take hold.

By March 2001, Malvo had converted to Islam, as his older companion had done 16 years earlier. Malvo brought a copy of the Koran to school one day after startling his classmates on another occasion by reciting the tenets of Islam instead of delivering the morning prayer.

Malvo's teachers picked up on another change in the boy: His grades slipped for three straight months.

Muhammad showed up at the school one morning to say he was Malvo's uncle and now his guardian on the island. Using a phone number provided by either Muhammad or the teenager, a school official called James in Florida to verify the man's claim. She apparently did.

By the end of March, Malvo was no longer showing up at Seventh-day Adventist, and his mother had stopped checking up on him by calling the school.

Malvo, carrying bogus U.S. identification, flew out of Antigua in May 2001 with Muhammad and his three children. In Fort Myers, Fla., Malvo was reunited with his mother, who was working at a Red Lobster restaurant.

But by October 2001, he and Muhammad were living together in Bellingham, staying on and off at the Lighthouse Mission homeless shelter from Oct. 20 to Dec. 19.

Muhammad and Malvo, now going by the name John, presented themselves to everyone as father and son, and those who didn't already know Muhammad believed it. No one even seemed to detect Malvo's Jamaican accent -- including a shelter manager who had worked with Jamaicans in Florida for 25 years -- and some now think he worked hard at disguising it.

The teenager dressed neatly in ironed slacks, white button-down shirts and polished black leather shoes. Muhammad's supervision was so strong he walked Malvo every day to and from Bellingham High School, less than four blocks from the shelter.

"The thing that stood out to us was that [Malvo] was a follower of John's, that his purpose was to please John and always be in John's favor and do whatever John wanted him to do," recalled the Rev. Al Archer, the Bellingham shelter's director.

He added that Malvo "was almost always three feet away from John. If you asked [Malvo] a direct question, he would answer it narrowly without straying into other subjects."

In December 2001, Malvo's mother rode a Greyhound bus 3,400 miles to Bellingham to reclaim her son. But she and Malvo wound up getting arrested for being in the country illegally. They were released in January after James posted bond. Malvo would soon gravitate back to Muhammad and disappear with him again.

During the rare moments when Muhammad was not around, Malvo would engage other adults.

Rory Reublin, the shelter's resident manager, remembered when Malvo struck up a conversation in the cafeteria with two other residents at the dinner table while Muhammad was still on the serving line. When Muhammad came to the table, he glared at the chatting teenager.

"Once he gave him that look, Malvo stopped talking in mid-sentence and dropped his head and kept eating," Reublin said. "Right then I said to myself, 'That is power right there. He has this kid under control.' "

Archer remembered seeing Malvo and James together in Bellingham and noticing that the teenager was much more jovial, cracking jokes and giggling, than when he was with Muhammad. "He seemed like more of a kid around her, while around him he seemed like more of a trainee," Archer said.

Around Malvo's 17th birthday on Feb. 18, he and Muhammad showed up in a Cost Cutter supermarket in Bellingham. As Muhammad roamed the aisles, Malvo started talking to a woman who was offering free bite-size samples of cheese quesadillas.

The 70-year-old woman noticed that the boy kept nervously looking around. She also sensed he was lonely. "He would drop his head a little bit, and when he'd look up, his eyes were melancholic," she said.

Malvo told the woman a fabricated tale about how he and Muhammad were looking for a large apartment in Bellingham because Malvo's three siblings and his mother planned to move in with them. Malvo complained that the rents in town were high. When the woman tried selling him a box of the quesadillas, Malvo said ruefully that he had no refrigerator because he was living out of a car.

During his time with Muhammad, Malvo developed so keen an interest in health foods that Muhammad's old Army buddy Robert Holmes nicknamed the teenager "High Little Ginseng."

When Muhammad dropped hints to friends that he was contemplating violent crime, Malvo would remain quiet. The youth merely smiled and nodded, for example, when Muhammad showed one of his friends a book on gun silencers and talked about plans to kill a police officer or shoot a fuel tanker.

By late July, Malvo and Muhammad had left Washington state and embarked on a meandering journey through the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, a trip that police say led to shootings in Maryland, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana and finally to the October sniper attacks that paralyzed the D.C. region.

Their whereabouts over that period have been retraced carefully by law enforcement authorities. But with the duo moving ever more frequently, few people spent enough time with them to form a clear impression of their relationship and Malvo's frame of mind.

During a visit in Baton Rouge, La., one of Muhammad's cousins found Malvo so quiet it made her uncomfortable, while another relative simply attributed the teenager's silence to good manners. Sharon Rybiski, the owner of Bickie's Health Foods in Hammond, La., who confronted Malvo in August about trying to steal a $1 cookie pack from the store, was struck by his "deadpan" expression during the incident.

Those who knew Malvo in Jamaica reacted with disbelief as news spread that the bookish boy with the beaming smile had been arrested in one of the deadliest series of killings in U.S. history.

"What's that you call them in America -- nerds? Nerds don't know how to shoot a gun. Nerds know how to find the books," said Malvo's old friend Onyeka Nevins.

Powell, the cousin who had cared for Malvo, could not comprehend what had happened to him.

"There were so many people who loved Lee and took him into their hearts," she said, fighting back tears. "All the people he was living with, we didn't know anything until we saw him on TV."

Staff writer Josh White and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Esmie McLeod, vice principal of York Castle High School in Jamaica, confronted Malvo's mother about her decision to take him away and disrupt his life once more. He was an outstanding student at York Castle, below, which he attended for nearly three years.Aldrich Bloomfield, a friend in Endeavour, Jamaica, recalls Malvo's concerns: "It was all about God and his schoolwork. He wanted to have a good career and help his family."Malvo lived for a few years in this house with his aunt Marie Lawrence and her husband and two daughters. Neighbors remember Malvo as religious, obedient and studious.