Suspects Left a Troubled Trail
Before Attacks, Muhammad Showed Bravado, Talked of Violence
By Scott Higham, April Witt and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 27, 2002; Page A01
John Muhammad and his teenage protege, John Lee Malvo, were sitting in the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Wash., sipping herbal tea, when the older man pulled a greasy metal rod from his backpack -- along with detailed instructions to make a silencer. He shielded the piece of paper from the other patrons and spoke quietly as they huddled over the table.
Muhammad was hatching a terrible plan: He and the boy wanted to shoot a gas tanker and explode it on a busy highway, or maybe kill a police officer and then blow up the mourners at the funeral home.
Harjeet Singh, the only other person at the table that day in May, had gotten to know Muhammad, a former Army sergeant, while working out and talking politics at the YMCA. Singh said this talk of violence was new -- and terrifying.
But the boy seemed spellbound.
"Most of the talking was done by John Muhammad," Singh said. "Lee looked like he was very anxious to do that, like this is something fun to do."
Muhammad had failed as a businessman and as a husband -- he was twice divorced and had lost custody of his children. Malvo was a polite boy who left his home in Jamaica when he was about 13. Exactly how they met is unclear, but over a few years, the unlikely pair traveled from a frame house in Antigua to a homeless shelter in Bellingham. They hit the road -- by Greyhound bus, sometimes on foot, and ultimately in a $250 Chevrolet Caprice -- to Muhammad's boyhood home in Baton Rouge, La., to Camden, N.J., to Montgomery, Ala., and finally to the Washington area.
The Army veteran and the fresh-faced kid from the Caribbean cemented their relationship. Muhammad called Malvo his son, or sometimes stepson. Malvo called him sir. Police and prosecutors are exploring the nature of their bond, now that they are charged in a brutal three-week shooting rampage that left 10 dead, three wounded and a region of millions terrified.
On their journey toward the nation's capital, they left scattered clues, most undetected or misread. Friends and associates, acquaintances and strangers look back now and search for answers.
There was the time last year when Muhammad stood on the veranda of an island home near Antigua's Mount St. John and spotted someone at a window in a distant hospital. He turned to a friend and made a sudden, unexpected boast.
"He told me that he could shoot the man from here," Randy Nelson said.
But he didn't shoot. Not that day.
A Military Thing
Muhammad, born John Allen Williams in New Orleans on New Year's Eve 1960, had a tough start in life. He lost his mother to breast cancer, and a cousin said he never knew his father. After his mother died, he was sent to Baton Rouge to be raised by aunts and other relatives.
At school, classmates described him as a nerdy, pimply-faced kid. But his younger cousin Edward Holiday idolized him. "He was very caring," Holiday recalled. "He always took time to help the younger kids. There were times he would take a whole day out and take me to the park. . . . He was like my protector. I loved him."
By the time Muhammad was a young man, he was angular and good-looking. At least one girl fell hard: Carol Kaglear. Muhammad joined the Army National Guard of Louisiana in 1978, the year he graduated from Scotlandville High School. He married Kaglear in 1981.
His brother married her sister. Muhammad got a job as a welder, and they all moved to Avenue M in a working-class Baton Rouge neighborhood, leading low-key lives in side-by-side trailer homes.
Within a year, Carol Williams gave birth to the couple's only child. Muhammad was a disciplinarian. A cousin, Nornette Banks, said his parenting skills bordered on cruelty. "He was strict," she said. "It was like a military thing."
It wasn't long before the couple had marital problems. Muhammad moved in with another woman, Mildred Green, and separated from Carol Williams on Nov. 5, 1985. Muhammad brought his new girlfriend to Fort Lewis, Wash., where he was stationed with the Army. Within two years, Muhammad and Williams were divorced, and he had a new wife: Mildred Green.
A Bored Boy
The year Muhammad separated from Carol, Lee Malvo was born to a building contractor and a seamstress in the Jointwood section of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, records show. His parents split, and the boy moved in with a cousin, Romello Powell, in a poor, mountainous town in the middle of the island. Malvo grew up bright and studious.
"The zeal with which you work will assure you maximum success in your course of studies," English teacher Patricia Deacon wrote in Malvo's report card in 1998. "Continue to be the pleasant, caring and loving child you are."
Malvo impressed others with his kindness.
"He would come by and say, 'Miss Wilson, do you have anything for me to do?' " said Aleatha Wilson, who runs the book room at the high school. "He didn't want to go home after school. I guess he didn't have anything to do.
"He was bored."
In 1988, Muhammad showed up for his class reunion in Louisiana, looking spiffy and buff. He rolled up in a white Pontiac Trans Am, a sports car he liked to call "Lady."
He was no longer "the ugly duckling," said classmate Sandra McFollins Patterson. He had a "chest like a six-pack," she said.
She thought he was single, and they dated for several months, she said. But she was infuriated to learn that he was married. He was a master manipulator, she said, and "knew how to charm."
Muhammad returned to Washington state, and within a few years he and his family, now including three children, had a host of problems. He lost a nasty custody dispute with his first wife. He started a karate school with a partner, but it failed in 1997.
An auto-repair business he started with his second wife ran up big debts and defaulted on thousands of dollars in loans. By 1999, they faced hefty tax liens.
Just after Christmas, Mildred, who like her husband had converted to Islam and changed her last name to Muhammad, filed for divorce. Still, they lived together until a serious argument in February 2000.
She wanted him out of the house. Muhammad moved in with a friend in Tacoma, Wash. The children remained with Mildred, and John returned to visit.
What happened next is under dispute: Mildred Muhammad said he kidnapped their three kids and ran. He said he had her permission to take them.
A Good Father
John Muhammad and his three children flew to Antigua in late March 2000 for what their host thought would be a short vacation.
"My cousin [in Washington state] told me his friend wanted his kids to see Antigua," said Janet Kellman, who hosted them in her simple wood-frame cottage.
They stayed with Kellman for more than four weeks. She recalled that Muhammad would get up early in the morning and run with his son. "You could tell he was a good father -- he loved his kids," Kellman said.
But eventually, Kellman "threw them out," she said.
The family wound up about a mile away in a neighborhood called Ottos. The three children began attending Greensville Primary School. People recall Muhammad as a friendly and outgoing man.
"He was one of the nicest people you could meet," said Nelson, a neighbor. Nelson remembered talking to Muhammad about his Army service and the accuracy of some of the weapons used.
While it is unclear how and when Muhammad met Malvo, the young man was attending the nearby Seventh-day Adventist School. At some point, about September 2000, he joined Muhammad and his children and told people that his mother, Una James, was living elsewhere. Janet Harris, principal of the school next door, said she remembers Malvo as a good-natured boy. But she was struck by his parents' absence.
"He said his mother was in the States and his father was in the Bahamas," Harris said. "I kept asking him. . . . Finally he said, 'You're asking too many questions.' But he seemed like a happy kid."
While on the island, Muhammad told impressive stories. He variously said that he was a CIA officer, worked for the FBI or was an international businessman. He also began consorting with a man who had a history of running scams in New York and New Jersey, according to island officials and court documents.
But he doted on his children. Muhammad even inscribed their names on the concrete steps of the Greensville school. For Muhammad, his children appeared to be everything -- and he was about to lose them for good.
A Mother's Search
Mildred Muhammad was looking for her children. She asked authorities in Tacoma to help her find them and get them back. She told them that her husband had kidnapped them and threatened to kill her.
Unbeknownst to her, John Muhammad arrived at the 80-bed Lighthouse Mission homeless shelter in Bellingham in early August 2001 with at least two of the children, said the Rev. Al Archer, the director of the shelter. The men's shelter wasn't set up for families, but he allowed them to stay anyway.
"We help everyone," he said. "We don't screen out people."
The family's time in the shelter was uneventful until Muhammad enrolled the children in school under assumed names and applied for government assistance. On Aug. 31, 2001, authorities took the children out of school; a judge ordered them returned to their mother.
Neighbors said Mildred Muhammad went "underground" with her children. John Muhammad stayed on in Bellingham, using the shelter as a base. He would disappear for days only to return and say he'd been out of town.
Not much throws Archer, 65, who has worked with the homeless for 29 years. But he did not know what to make of Muhammad, who once received a phone call from a travel agent. How could he afford so much travel?
"That was kind of strange," Archer said. "You don't go to a mission for recreation. He was doing all this flying, three or four trips that we were aware of, and he had to have money to do that. Yet he was living in a homeless shelter. It just didn't all fit together."
Muhammad was conspicuously courteous and compliant, Archer said. "He was such a nice guy," Archer recalled. "Whatever we asked of him, he would do. We never saw him angry.
"But somehow he was different. He was just different."
After Sept. 11, 2001, when the newspapers were full of tales of terrorist sleepers, Archer said he began to wonder whether the quiet and super-fit Muhammad was one.
In mid-October, Archer did something he had never before done in his three decades of running ministries to the homeless: He phoned the FBI about one of his clients.
"I thought that he was involved in some kind of conspiracy against our country," Archer said. "I thought that he was traveling around and doing things to promote this kind of thing."
As far as Archer knew, the FBI didn't follow up.
"We were starting to wish he'd move on," Archer said. "At the same time, we let him stay around in case somebody did want to talk to him."
Before long, Muhammad had a visitor at the shelter. In about the third week of October 2001, Archer was walking through the chapel one day when he saw Muhammad talking to a teenage boy who called himself John Lee Malvo. Muhammad introduced him as his son.
Archer had doubts. "I didn't think it was his son," he said. "I thought he was somebody who was being manipulated by John or influenced."
Archer was almost relieved in late 2001 when a frantic-sounding woman named Una James telephoned him from the Bellingham bus station. She said that she was Malvo's mother and that she had come to try to get him away from Muhammad.
Archer picked her up at the station with her meager possessions: clothes, sheets, pots and pans. He arranged to put her up in a hotel, then found her space in the women's shelter. "She was desperate," he said. "She was just like my mother would have been if I'd taken off across country with somebody that nobody knew.
"She wanted her son away from John Muhammad."
Archer and James discussed the options, and she decided to call the police.
Initially, it seemed as if the police would help. But James hit a snag. Authorities learned that she had entered the country illegally. Both Malvo, who said he was 16 at the time, and James, then 37, were arrested on immigration charges by a border patrol agent, and then turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Seattle.
They were released pending deportation hearings.
Malvo came by the homeless shelter to pick up his things.
He wasn't with his mother.
Muhammad returned to his old Baton Rouge neighborhood this year. He stayed with Edward Holiday, a first cousin who grew up two streets away.
Holiday had not seen Muhammad for years but remembered him fondly. When Holiday was 16 and had a hot date, Muhammad, who was in his twenties, lent him his new Cutlass Supreme -- even though Holiday didn't have a license.
Muhammad boasted that life was sweet. He had a great wife and had bought her a Jaguar. He said that he owned an aerobics studio. He was dressed well and looked great.
"If you'd tell me he was running for president, I would have believed it," Holiday said.
The reality, which Holiday would not learn until later, is that Muhammad had been divorced and agreed to turn over an old Jaguar to his wife as part of the breakup.
The visit was brief. But Muhammad would be back.
Harjeet Singh, 38, couldn't help noticing how fit Muhammad and Malvo looked. Singh saw the pair lifting weights three or four times a week at the Bellingham YMCA, where he worked out.
One day in January or February 2002, the three struck up a conversation about weightlifting techniques, Singh said. After they exercised, Muhammad invited Singh to join them across the street for tea and a snack at the Community Food Co-op, which specializes in organic products.
They hit it off right away, and their get-togethers became a routine. They talked about exercise, diet and vitamins. Muhammad seemed like an expert on the topics.
Singh noticed that the pair popped vitamins and supplements that were supposed to build mass, muscle and strength. When Singh went to the health food store to buy some for himself, he was shocked to see that they cost as much as $50 a bottle.
Muhammad and Malvo told their new friend they were father and son. Before long, he invited the pair to his home to eat dinner and meet his wife and three children. "They were casual . . . wrestling like normal father and son," Singh said.
Still, there was an odd undercurrent to their relationship that made Singh ask Muhammad whether John Lee Malvo was really his son.
"Lee was acting like a little soldier talking to his senior officer," Singh said. "When John Muhammad asked him something, instead of saying, 'Yes, Dad,' he'd say, 'Yes, sir.' He was very disciplined and well-behaved."
Singh, who has been a laborer much of his adult life, enjoyed talking about religion and politics with Muhammad. Muhammad told him that he didn't drink or smoke because of his conversion to Islam.
Singh and Muhammad shared a critical view of U.S. foreign policy, Singh said. "I can say out loud that lots of American policy makes suffering," he said.
But Muhammad went further, speaking in favor of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "He said that it should have happened a long time ago," Singh said.
In April 2002, their relationship took an odd twist, Singh said. Muhammad asked his friend if he knew where he could get a silencer for a gun. Singh dismissed the comments as tough talk, he said.
Muhammad left town. When he came back, a few weeks later, he told Singh he had something to show him. It was mid-May when the three met at the co-op. Muhammad showed him the steel rod, a book about guns and the instructions on making silencers.
"He told me, 'Look, we are planning to shoot a fuel tanker to cause a big explosion and maximum damage on the freeway. We want to hide in the wooded area along the highway -- just shoot and disappear,' " Singh said. "They wanted the silencer so nobody would know where the shot came from."
Muhammad also said they wanted to shoot and kill a police officer, then massacre the officers' mourners by blowing up a funeral home, Singh said.
"I think they were just hijacking Islam to justify their actions," Singh said.
Afraid of landing in jail for associating with them, Singh told them he didn't know anyone who could help them make a silencer. He left the co-op without looking back but said he was afraid to go to the police.
"These people knew where I live," he said.
Over the next two weeks, Muhammad and Malvo phoned him at home. Eventually, he told his wife to say he no longer lived there.
In early June 2002, Singh was arrested and jailed on domestic violence charges. On June 5, as a Bellingham police officer took his statement, Singh told him about his conversation with Muhammad.
The officer left and returned with a detective and an FBI agent. Singh told him everything he knew. He said the officers acted as if they did not believe him.
Singh entered a plea in the domestic violence case. He was fined, sent to anger management classes and placed on probation for one year, he said.
Muhammed and Malvo went on the road.
This summer, Muhammad returned to Baton Rouge a different man. He had few clothes. He looked dirty and needed a haircut. He had no car. And Malvo was with him. He called him his son.
Holiday realized they were famished.
"He said, 'You got something to eat? I'm hungry,' " Holiday recalled. "I thought, 'Maybe he's running from something.' "
To Holiday, the relationship between Muhammad and Malvo seemed like father and son. Malvo didn't talk back. Muhammad never had to discipline him.
Shelia Tezano, a sister of Muhammad's ex-wife Carol, said Muhammad seemed transient yet acted "arrogant." Malvo, on the other hand, always said "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am" and "please, ma'am."
Faces From the Past
It had been five months since Singh last saw Muhammad and Malvo. Then last week, he saw them again -- in a photograph flashed on television. In the photo, they looked happy. Their arms, like their fates, were linked.
Muhammed is being held on weapons charges, Malvo as a material witness. And Singh is in demand as a television commentator.
Staff writers Justin Blum, William Booth, Fredrick Kunkle, Evelyn Nieves, Manuel Roig-Franzia, Mary Beth Sheridan and Amy Shipley, researchers Madonna Lebling, Don Pohlman, Bobbye Pratt, Lucy Shackelford and Margot Williams and special correspondents Adam Nossiter and Timothy Payne contributed to this report.