It came down to three calls.

One came from a man in Tacoma, Wash., who reported strange behavior by a trigger-happy neighbor. One went to a sincere-sounding priest near Richmond. And one, police said, came from thesniper himself.

Those led police to a killing in Montgomery, Ala. A fingerprint in Alabama gave them a name. That name gave them another name and a local connection.

Within seven days, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, were arrested, ending three weeks of massive and futile dragnets, false leads and white van scares.

"After we submitted that fingerprint, you saw this case break wide open," said Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright. "This print put a name with the sniper."

Before those three calls, members of the task force investigating the shootings were plagued by dead ends and bad luck. They checked thousands of tips, scoured scores of motel registries and followed dozens of potential suspects. They put out composite sketches of vans and box trucks.

But all the while, a faded blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice carrying two armed men passed unmolested through the streets of Maryland, the District and Virginia, dodging roadblocks and chance encounters with police.

Once, on Oct. 8, with six dead and two wounded already, police found Muhammad asleep at the wheel of the car on a North Baltimore side street. They let him go with just a warning, even though five days earlier, a witness had reported seeing a similar Caprice leaving the scene of a fatal shooting on Georgia Avenue in the District. But the tipster had said the car was burgundy or brown, and when Baltimore police checked for warrants and lookouts, they found none. There would be five more shootings.

On Oct. 3 -- a day when five people were killed -- a Montgomery County police officer encountered the Caprice and entered its license number into a computer, but there is no indication that a ticket was issued or that the car's occupants were detained, according to two law enforcement sources.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the tag number was run by area police more than three times during the shootings and was photographed by a camera in Fairfax County as the car ran a red light.

Things began to change, though, just before the last two shootings, when the calls started. The most telling, perhaps, came Oct. 17. A man called police claiming to be the Washington area sniper,sounding agitated and combative, wanting to be taken seriously. He told them to check out a robbery-murder "in Montgomery." That would prove his story.

A day later, the Rev. William Sullivan, a priest at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in Ashland, Va., received an eerily similar call from two men. They were frustrated and upset. And they mentioned a killing in Alabama.

"They used the term 'I am God' and mentioned Montgomery, Alabama, several times," said the Rev. Pasquall "Pat" Apuzzo, the secretary to the bishop of the Richmond Diocese. "It was a garbled conversation."

Apuzzo said Sullivan did not believe he had spoken to the snipers. Rather, he thought the callers were just overly obsessed with the case.

Apuzzo said that on the following Sunday morning, after a snipershooting in Ashland, Sullivan was met at his church by investigators. "They said, 'We have reason to believe the sniper is someone from your parish,' " Apuzzo said. Then Sullivan told the agents of his phone call.

"Some connection was made in their minds," Apuzzo said of the investigators. From that point, Apuzzo said, Sullivan had several conversations with law enforcement officers.

That same Sunday, J.H. Wilson, the police chief of Montgomery, Ala., was polishing off a steak dinner after attending an Atlanta Falcons football game when he received an urgent call from one of his detectives, who delivered some astonishing news.

"He said, 'You're not going to believe this. Don't get your hopes up,' " Wilson recalled. "It kind of got dropped on us like a bombshell."

The officer unspooled the details of a conversation he had had moments before with agents from the sniper task force in Washington. The agents wanted to know if there were any recent unsolved killings in Montgomery, the state capital.

Wilson and his detectives had a case in mind, a crime that had baffled them and shocked the community. On Sept. 21, a gunman had slain one woman and wounded another outside a state-run liquor store near Interstate 85. A rookie patrol officer saw and chased the gunman, but the suspect got away.

Police thought the motive for the crime was robbery, but they weren't sure and had run out of leads. They had some physical evidence that tantalized the investigators from Washington: a fingerprint, lifted from a magazine about guns and ammunition that had been dropped at the scene.

FBI agents flew to Alabama on Monday to examine the evidence. More agents arrived the next day, as the task force became increasingly interested. By Wednesday, it was clear they were on to something, Wilson said. About 6:30 p.m., he dispatched one of his detectives to Montgomery's small airport with a packet of files and a plane ticket to Washington.

Investigators ran the fingerprint through national databases not available to some local police departments and eventually matched it to a teenager in Bellingham, Wash., clear across the country and a half-hour's drive from the Canadian border.

The fingerprint belonged to Malvo, a Jamaican citizen. His prints were in a national database because on Dec. 18, Malvo and his mother had had a run-in with local authorities in Bellingham, who turned them over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Seattle.

Malvo told the INS in a sworn statement that he had entered the country illegally with the help of smugglers, who brought him and his mother by boat from Jamaica to Florida, via Haiti, according to a federal law enforcement source. He also told them that he lived in a homeless shelter with his father -- whom he identified as John Allen Muhammad.

The INS charged Malvo and his mother with illegally entering the country and took their fingerprints, according to the federal source.

The trail was now hot. While Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose was standing before the cameras talking in code to the sniper, his task force was chasing promising leads.

Police sources said a resident of Tacoma, about 100 miles south of Bellingham, had called the task force hotline last week to report suspicions about someone named Muhammad and someone else nicknamed "sniper" who had rattled the neighborhood by frequently taking target practice with a rifle, shooting into a large tree stump.

Although the caller was short on specifics, agents entered the details into a database of leads accumulated during the sniper investigation, and later learned that Malvo and Muhammad had once lived at the Tacoma address.

The tip took on new currency as investigators simultaneously explored yet another connection to Tacoma and the West Coast, this one supplied by the man they believed to be the sniper himself.

Saturday night, someone professing to be the gunman left a note tacked to a tree outside a Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland. Contained in the note was a demand for money -- $10 million -- and instructions to wire the sum to a bank account.

Agents traced the account to a woman in Arizona or California who had reported the theft of her ATM card, according to two sources close to the investigation. Agents also discovered that the card was used recently to withdraw money from an ATM in Tacoma, the sources said.

The overlap of leads prompted investigators to quickly shift their focus to Washington state, as they raced to find Malvo and Muhammad.

Detectives discovered that Muhammad had registered a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice on Sept. 11 in Camden, N.J. They also learned, through law enforcement record checks, of the Baltimore stop. That bit of information placed their suspect in Maryland.

Wednesday morning, a posse of federal agents descended on a duplex in Tacoma, armed with chain saws, metal detectors and shovels. They combed through the yard and removed a large tree stump in search of bullet fragments and other evidence.

Later that night, authorities issued warrants for the arrest of Malvo and Muhammad. Officials appeared on national television to ask people to look out for the pair, as well as a Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey tags.

About an hour later, a motorist at a rest stop in Frederick spotted the car. About 3:30 a.m., police arrested Malvo and Muhammad, who had been sleeping inside the the Caprice.

Roig-Franzia reported from Montgomery, Ala.