When federal agents rushed two weeks ago to the Clinton home of Mildred Muhammad, an ex-wife of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, their words were urgent: "Mrs. Muhammad, we're getting ready to release his name. He is a suspect. We need to put you in protective custody."
The agents peppered her with questions as they took her, her children and other relatives to a secret location: Had she talked to him? Did she know what he was doing? Did she know him to have weapons? Would he really try to kill her?
She could answer yes only to the last question. Without a doubt, yes, he would try to kill her, she said.
For three years, Mildred Muhammad has been scanning her surroundings and glancing at the tops of buildings, expecting to see her ex-husband perched nearby with a gun trained upon her. He had promised to kill her, and perhaps more than anyone, she knew he was a man of his word.
The night of Oct. 23, when John Muhammad's picture flashed on television in the hours before his arrest, her emotions took over.
"Oh my God, it's him," she said. "He found me!"
Then she moved closer to the screen and stared. "John, what happened to you?"
The answer to that question, according to Mildred Muhammad, is a complex, somewhat unknowable tale of transformation from a loving husband to an angry, controlling man. Her account, provided in a four-hour interview with The Washington Post, offers the most textured and detailed portrait available of the man prosecutors believe is behind 21 shootings in six states and the District of Columbia.
Dressed in an elegant lavender tunic and veil, Muhammad, 42, spoke calmly, sometimes with animation, as she described her relationship with her former husband. After a dozen years of marriage, a joint business venture, the birth of three children and a bitter divorce two years ago, she is arguably the person who knows him best.
She last saw her ex-husband in Washington state Sept. 4, 2001, she said, when she was granted full custody of their children -- now ages 12, 10 and 9 -- and the right to leave the state without telling him her destination.
Now she is convinced that his chief purpose in coming to the Washington area was to kill her. "I'm sure he had me in his scope," she said. "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 expressed her deep sorrow over the deaths of so many people.
"They all died because of me," she said softly.
She also said she felt sorry for John Lee Malvo, 17, the second sniper suspect, whom she has never met.
"His life was over from the time he said, 'Hi John,' " she said. "He just didn't know it."
Since John Muhammad, 41, and Malvo were arrested at a highway rest stop in Frederick County on Oct. 24, Mildred Muhammad and her children have been in seclusion. Accompanied by her attorney, Vandy L. Jamison Jr., she agreed to talk under the condition that her location not be disclosed. Since the arrests, she has not returned to her administrative job at Southern Maryland Hospital Center, and her children have not attended school.
James Wyda, the Maryland federal public defender who has represented John Muhammad on his federal charges, declined to comment for this report.
During the attacks, Mildred Muhammad said, she thought of her ex-husband but dismissed the idea that he could be the shooter. "I felt he was only coming after me, so why would he kill anybody else?"
But now, when she looks back at the sniper's trail, she sees messages she thinks may have been meant for her. The Michaels crafts store was one of her favorite stores when she and her husband were living in Tacoma, Wash. It was at a Michaels that she had purchased the materials she needed to fashion a bride and groom to put atop their wedding cake.
Although Mildred and John Muhammad grew up in the same neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La., they did not meet until 1985, when they were in their mid-twenties. She found out a month later that he was married but continued to see him because he kept his promises.
"I was intrigued by him keeping his word," she said. "He was the only man who said he was going to do something and did it. That was the attraction for me."
After John divorced his first wife, he and Mildred were married in 1988 at Fort Lewis in Washington state, where John was stationed with the Army. He wanted to be a career soldier, but he returned from his tour of duty in the Persian Gulf War a changed man, she said.
He told her that black soldiers had been discriminated against. One incident in particular left him seething. After he was accused of tossing an incendiary grenade into a tent, Muhammad was hog-tied, arms and legs cuffed behind his back, he told his wife. When a siren sounded to alert the troops to a possible gas attack, no one gave him a gas mask. By the time he learned it was a drill, he had been humiliated in a manner that he never forgot, she said.
"When he got back, he was a very angry man," Mildred Muhammad said. "I didn't know this man. The one I knew stayed in Saudi. He didn't want anyone to become close to him. He became so quiet."
About the same time, Muhammad developed what seemed like a dual personality, she said. For nearly six months, he would go to work and in the evenings do nothing but sit on a sofa, saying very little. Yet he suddenly demanded that everything be done with military-style precision, she said.
Although their son had asthma and required medication, Muhammad tried to convince the boy that he did not have the condition. He told him that if he did not overcome his asthma, he would never be considered a man, Mildren Muhammad said.
During the same period, he could be charming to customers who frequented the couple's automobile repair business. Customers were impressed with Muhammad's skills and the fact that he would wear surgical gloves when he worked on their cars.
She said that although her husband would tell her that money was not that important, he desperately wanted to be "the picture of success." With that came a determination to hide his flaws. He tried to shield the fact that he was a poor speller, for example, even as he zeroed in on the weaknesses of others.
She described what she saw as his skill at playing mind games.
"He knew exactly what words to use to push your buttons," she said. "He studied everybody he was around. He knew what words to use to in order to get you to do what he wanted. He would study your anger and how fast it would take you to calm down. . . . He is always thinking. His mind is never idle."
She believes he came to view her as an easy victim and, eventually, his enemy.
In 1996, Mildred Muhammad sided with Muhammad's first wife, Carol Williams, in a dispute about Lindbergh Williams, John and Carol's son, who was visiting his father at the time. Muhammad had planned to leave town with the child, then 13, to avoid obeying a court order to return him to his mother.
"I convinced him to put Lindbergh on the plane and send him to his mother," she said. "When he boarded the plane, John turned around like I wasn't there. I think that is when the hatred for me began. I had betrayed him."
By 1997, Mildred and John and converted to Islam. As their domestic problems mounted, most of their friends at the mosque sided with John, she said. He had wrongly accused her of having an affair, she said, and took the matter to the mosque. As a result, she lost her job as a secretary.
"I was made to look as if I was incompetent and pathetic," she said. "He was telling me I am not good enough, that I was not a good Muslim, not a good mother."
He sometimes showed his desire to control in strange ways, she said. Once he changed their home telephone number but refused to tell her what it was.
Sometimes he taunted her until she yelled at him, then would lower his voice, give her a penetrating look and ask: "Why are you so upset? Did I say something to upset you?"
Meanwhile, she became convinced that her husband was having affairs. She heard portions of his telephone conversations. He would leave their bed and the house after midnight. For about six months, she said, she contemplated suicide as her only way out.
In September 1999, he moved out of their home, and she filed for divorce three months later. It was then that she learned that Muhammad always operated with a plan.
On March 27, 2000, Muhammad told his wife that he was taking their children shopping. When he called to say they had been delayed, he and the children were actually at the airport boarding a plane for the Caribbean island of Antigua. John Muhammad insisted later in court that he had Mildred's permission to take the children away, but she said he had kidnapped them. She would not see the children again for a year and a half, until Sept. 4, 2001.
When authorities located the children and returned them to her, Mildred Muhammad secretly brought them to live with her in Clinton. Her friends in Tacoma told her that John was still determined to find her.
In the midst of their problems, Mildred Muhammad said, her husband twice threatened her life. When he had the children, he called her mother and said that he would kill Mildred. On another occasion, he confronted her in the garage.
"You are not going to raise my children," she said he warned her. "You have become my enemy, and as my enemy, I will kill you."
She said she tried not to show her fear. "I've been sleeping with the enemy," she responded. Then she walked away and cried.
Since the day John Muhammad took their children to Antigua, Mildred Muhammad said, she has lived in fear -- the same kind of fear that terrorized Washington area residents during the sniper attacks.
"I've been in survival mode," she said, wiping away tears. "I don't know what it's like to live."
This was to be the year that she and the children finally settled down. She had planned to buy a house and car.
She has followed the reports about the sniper shootings and is certain that Muhammad was stalking her. "I don't believe in coincidences," she said.
Several of the shootings took place at stores, including Michaels and Home Depot, where she had frequently shopped in Tacoma. And now she views the sniper's warning contained in a letter left near a shooting scene -- "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time" -- as a message to her.
Muhammad was here. He had promised that she would not live to raise his children. And she knew that his word was bond.
She still worries that her nightmare has not ended, wondering whether prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him. She fears that one day he still may come for her.
The arrest has been particularly difficult for her son John Jr., she said. Recently, she talked to her children about changing their names.
"They don't like it," she said. "They liked their names. They cried."
But she told them that their father's arrest will follow them for the rest of their lives. She told them that she does not want people "to judge you or make you feel less than who you are."
When the children go to bed, she watches the latest news about Muhammad. Sometimes she goes into the bathroom and cries into a towel so the children will not hear her.
"The one thing that I came out here to do I still can't do," she said. "Because now that he's been caught, I can't go out, and I can't do those things that are necessary for us to live a normal life. So he is still in control."
Staff writer David S. Fallis contributed to this report.