The string of killings attributed to John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo grew even longer today as authorities here charged them with first-degree murder, alleging that a Baton Rouge beauty shop manager was slain Sept. 23 with the same rifle used in the Washington area sniper shootings.
Citing ballistics tests, Police Chief Pat Englade said the .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle used to shoot at least 11 of the 13 sniper victims in the Washington area also was used to kill Hong Im Ballenger, 45, who was shot in the head outside Beauty Depot. The attack occurred nine days before Muhammad and Malvo allegedly began a nearly month-long campaign of stealth shootings in the Washington area.
Two days before Ballenger was shot and robbed of her purse, the same Bushmaster XM-15 rifle was used to kill one woman and wound another outside a state-run liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., according to authorities there. Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, have been charged with first-degree murder in that jurisdiction.
With today's announcement by Englade, the Bushmaster rifle found in the beat-up Chevrolet Caprice in which Muhammad and Malvo were arrested Oct. 24 has been linked by ballistics tests to 14 shootings in four states and the District. Ten people were slain and four wounded in those attacks, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 22. Authorities believe that the Bushmaster also was used in two other fatal shootings in the spate of sniper attacks, though ballistics tests in those cases were inconclusive.
"The investigation into possible involvement of Muhammad and/or Malvo in other local crimes is continuing," Englade said at a news conference. In addition to ballistics tests, he said, the two suspects were linked to the killing by dated store receipts found in the Caprice that show they were in Baton Rouge on the day Ballenger was slain.
Muhammad, a Louisiana native, grew up in Baton Rouge and has relatives there. They said that he and Malvo visited last summer and that Muhammad appeared destitute.
Kwang Szuszka, Ballenger's sister, said Ballenger was walking to her car about 6:40 p.m. after closing the Beauty Depot when she was shot from behind. She carried a canister of pepper spray, police said, but she never had a chance to use it.
Witnesses said the gunman was a black man who ran off into a nearby neighborhood. Police dogs found that the scent of the suspect stopped abruptly -- which Szuszka believes means that a car picked him up.
Szuszka said her sister, a mother of three, was a Korean immigrant who married an American serviceman 22 years ago and came to the United States more than 18 years ago. "She helped at church all the time," Szuszka said. "That was her life, helping the church, and people."
District Attorney Doug Moreau of East Baton Rouge Parish said he had not decided whether to seek death sentences for Muhammad and Malvo. Like Virginia and Alabama, Louisiana permits the execution of defendants who commit murders at age 17.
In the Washington area so far, Muhammad and Malvo have been charged with murder by Virginia and Maryland authorities in eight of the 10 fatal sniper slayings. Maryland would not be able to impose a death sentence on Malvo because of his age. The District and Fairfax County, each the site of a sniper slaying, have not filed charges yet.
The suspects also have been charged by federal authorities. Muhammad could be sentenced to death by a federal jury, but Malvo could not.
Shortly before the Louisiana charges were announced, Prince George's County State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson said his office had filed attempted-murder and other charges against Muhammad and Malvo in an Oct. 7 sniper attack in which a 13-year-old student was seriously wounded outside a Bowie middle school. Malvo was charged as an adult. They could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Weighing in on a dispute among prosecutors over whether the suspects' initial trial should be in a federal, Virginia or Maryland court, Johnson said he believes the two should first face a state jury, not a federal one.
"I believe personally that these are local charges and that it would be more appropriate that these cases be tried on the local level," he said. He added that he believes the murder trials should precede trials on other charges, such as those in his county.
"I don't think we had standing to insist that these cases are tried first in light of the amount of death we had in other jurisdictions," Johnson said. "We're thankful to God, really, that we don't have that issue here."
At the Bowie shooting scene, where the boy was the eighth Washington area victim of the sniper attacks, investigators found a tarot "death" card that they believe was an attempt by the suspects to begin communicating with police. After the 12th victim was wounded Oct. 19 outside a Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Va., investigators found a note at the scene that they believe was an authentic message from the suspects.
"We have tried to contact you to start negotiations," read the note, which demanded $10 million for the shootings to stop. The letter mentioned earlier calls to law enforcement agencies -- including one to the Rockville police -- that the writer complained had not been treated seriously.
ABC News reported tonight that it had obtained a recording of a call by one of the suspects to Rockville police. "Good morning," says a voice on a tape aired by the network. "Don't say anything, just listen. We are the people that are causing the killing in your area. Look on the tarot card: It says, 'Call me God.' Do not release the threat. We have called you three times before, trying to set up negotiations. We've gotten no response. People have died."
The call-taker replied: "I need to refer you to the Montgomery County hotline. We are not investigating the crime. Would you like the number?"
The caller then hung up.
The call was made on the morning of Oct. 15, and Rockville officials immediately turned the tape over to the multi-state task force, said Neil Greenberger, a Rockville city spokesman. He said he believes that the tape played by ABC News was authentic.
Meanwhile, in Tacoma, Wash., investigators are trying to determine whether Muhammad and Malvo had possession of a handgun used in the Feb. 16 fatal shooting of Keenya Cook, 21, whose aunt helped Muhammad's second ex-wife during their divorce and child-custody fight. The owner of the .45-caliber pistol linked to the killing by ballistics tests has told police that he lent the weapon to Muhammad and Malvo.
Authorities said that the gun owner has told authorities that he lent another pistol to Muhammad and that it was used to fire at a synagogue in Tacoma in May. No one was hurt.
And in Baton Rouge, Englade said detectives are investigating whether Muhammad and Malvo can be linked to other crimes, though he declined to be specific. "We're not going to limit it to one," he said. "There could be other cases in Baton Rouge as well."
U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said leads will continue to be followed until authorities patch together a full picture of the sniper suspects' alleged crimes.
"We are not ruling out the possibility that other individuals may be involved or that the individuals currently in custody may have committed other criminal acts," he said.
Not all the crimes are necessarily slayings.
Police in Lynnwood, Wash., about 20 miles north of Seattle, are investigating Muhammad in connection with shots that were fired at the police station in April 2000.
For a year starting in October 1998, Muhammad, an auto mechanic, had a contract to change the oil in city vehicles. About 10 months into the contract, city officials told him that they were displeased with his work and might not renew the contract, Lynnwood Deputy Police Chief Karen Manser said today.
"He wasn't showing up on time and tended to make mistakes," said Manser, who was in charge of police vehicles at the time and worked with Muhammad. "He would not put the plug in, and the oil would run all over the parking lot."
Manser said that when the contract expired, neither Muhammad nor the city pursued a renewal. But according to Manser, Muhammad took the keys to the city vehicles with him and did not return them, even though he was asked to do so in several registered letters. In December 1999, the city dispatched a police sergeant to Tacoma to question Muhammad about the keys.
"The sergeant said Muhammad wasn't pleasant," Manser said. "[Muhammad] said the keys were in the mail." Two days later, she said, the keys arrived at City Hall.
About four months later, in April 2000, several windows in the police department were shot out. The crime was never solved.
On the Caribbean island of Antigua, where Muhammad and Malvo met a few years ago, a government-appointed commission that has spent the last three days examining the suspects' activities on the island today turned over a preliminary report to the attorney general, Gertel Thom. She said she planned to study the report and release details to the public on Friday.
Morello reported from Washington. Staff writers Justin Blum in Antigua, Michelle Boorstein in Tacoma, Wash., and David A. Fahrenthold, Allan Lengel, Jamie Stockwell and Steve Vogel in Washington and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.