John Allen Muhammad, 41, is a serial loser. He is a failed businessman whose karate school and car-repair business went bust, a twice-divorced father whose ex-wives didn't trust him with his children, a man whose unremarkably messy life disintegrated into homelessness and theft.

He was a mediocre soldier who was once convicted of striking a sergeant in the head, and he wasn't "anything special" as a marksman, according to a former platoon leader. But his second wife once described him as a handy gun enthusiast who “can make a weapon out of anything.”

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.

But Rafael Miranda, a former platoon leader, described him as "a very nice guy . . . a good soldier" who exhibited only very occasional "flashes of anger." Miranda said the unit specialized in construction and practiced riflery perhaps once a year. "I don't remember him being anything special," Miranda said.

Muhammad was convicted twice at courts-martial, once for failing to report for duty and disobeying a lawful command and later for striking a sergeant.

In 1981, he married his teenage sweetheart, Carol A. Williams, in Baton Rouge, and they had a son, Lindbergh, the next year. They separated in 1985 after he moved in with another woman, and the couple divorced two years later.

Custody was disputed from the start. Muhammad, who was still in the military, moved to Washington state and complained that his ex-wife would seldom allow him to see Lindbergh, who seemed undernourished and unkempt to him.

In March 1988, he married his second wife, and they went on to have three children. Muhammad ran an auto business, repairing cars on his lawn or at people's homes.

According to friends, the couple initially had a great relationship. "From 1992 until 1999, John and Mildred and the children had a model family picture," Anthony G. Muhammad, a friend who lived in Tacoma, wrote in court papers.

But there were setbacks. In the late 1990s, Muhammad and a business partner, Felix Strozier, started a karate school, expecting to draw many students from Tacoma's Muslim community. Too few came and the school closed, leaving the partners feuding and in debt.

"One night they packed up and just left," said Eric Lemming, 35, shop foreman of the nearby Lakewood Iron Works.

The couple's problems also continued. "There were a lot of times where he ended up just living or sleeping or staying in the karate school itself, for weekends at a time, like he didn't have another residence," Lemming said.

His wife stopped doing the secretarial work for the auto business, a friend said in court documents. A few months later, according to court records, she filed for divorce, and he moved in with a friend.

In late March 2000, he picked up the children from school and vanished, according to court records. He later said he took the children to Antigua with their mother's consent.

But his ex-wife said he went to pick the children up from school on a Monday afternoon and promised to return them to her by 5 that night -- and never showed up. She said he called later and said he was buying the children clothes at a Seattle Kmart.

A short time after her ex-husband's disappearance, MildredMuhammad -- without money for food or rent, neighbors said -- was hospitalized in Tacoma. She told security officers at the hospital that her ex-husband had called her there and threatened to kill her. She told the officers that she had obtained a restraining order against him after he left with the children.

She told security officers that John Muhammad had access to weapons, had served in the Army as a "demolitions/weapons expert" and "can make a weapon out of anything."

On Aug. 31, 2001, the Whatcom County sheriff's office executed a court order and collected the couple's three children from Parkview Elementary School and Whatcom Middle School in Bellingham, about 100 miles north of Tacoma. The children had been enrolled under false names, according to Sheriff Dale Brandland.

Brandland said the children told deputies they had an older brother, but they did not mention him by name.

Muhammad later arrived at the sheriff's office to try to get the children back. "He was obviously upset, but he was polite, courteous," Brandland said.

The court found that Muhammad had held the children improperly and his involvement in the children's lives could have an adverse impact on them, records show. He was given no visitation rights.

Bellingham is where Muhammad is first linked to John Lee Malvo. In October 2001, the two began living, apparently as father and son, at the Lighthouse Mission, a homeless shelter.

Late last year, Muhammad was seen at the Seafarers Grill in Tacoma, trying to sell frozen steaks to customers, said Tony Jones, the chef.

"He said he was selling the steaks to buy his kids Christmas presents," Jones said. "He said, 'My kids are hungry.' I said, 'Go home and feed them steaks.' " 

In February, Muhammad was arrested for stealing a steak from a Tacoma grocery store, according to court records.

By September, he was in Trenton, N.J., negotiating to buy a Chevrolet Caprice for $250 from Sure Shot Auto Sales. It had 146,975 miles on the odometer.

Fernando Maestre, 20, a salesman at Sure Shot, said Muhammad and another man came in on Sept. 8 and said they were looking to buy a four-door car for Muhammad's son. The next day Muhammad returned and said he wanted to buy the car himself. On Sept. 10, Muhammad bought it -- to use as a taxi, he said.

The story changed four times, Maestre said, and Muhammad "was real sarcastic."

He recalled that Muhammad had a Maryland driver's license and insurance. Before he closed the deal, Maestre said, Muhammad asked if there was a jack and spare tire in the car because he planned to drive to Washington.