/ 28 October 2002

Sniper police arrest two men

Two men wanted for questioning in connection with the wave of deadly sniper attacks in the United States were arrested early on Thursday after they were found sleeping in their car at a Maryland rest stop, authorities said.

The arrests came amid a flurry of activity in the investigation of the attacks that have killed 10 people and wounded three others since October 2.

The break occurred hours after authorities descended on a home in Tacoma, Washington, believed to hold clues important to the investigation. They then issued a nationwide alert for the car, spotted by a motorist and an attendant at the rest stop.

Members of the sniper task force arrested the men without incident at 3.19am off Interstate-70 in Frederick County, about 80km north-west of Washington, said Larry Scott, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The men were arrested in a car that matched a description police gave at a midnight press briefing, said Major Greg Shipley, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Police.

“I don’t know what their reaction was,” Shipley said. “It wasn’t an aggressive one.”

Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, who is leading the investigation, said John Allen Muhammad (42) was being sought for questioning in the slayings and called him “armed and dangerous”. Muhammad was said to be travelling with a juvenile, identified by a law enforcement source as Lee Malvo (17).

The relationship between Muhammad, who also goes by the name John Allen Williams, and the teen was not clear, but several newspapers reported that Malvo is Muhammad’s stepson.

A law enforcement source close to the investigation told Associated Press that “I’m confident that these are indeed the people” sought in the killings. “The evidence is all there and because of things we’ve received in the communications,” the source said on condition of anonymity, “it fits together with evidence they’ve collected in the last couple days.”

Moose issued another direct message to the sniper during a news conference. “You asked us to say ‘We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose’. We understand that hearing us say that is important to you,” Moose said.

“Let’s talk directly. We have an answer for you about your option. We are waiting for you to contact us.”

The duck reference is apparently from a folk tale in which a rabbit tries to hunt a duck with a noose, but the duck wins out and flies off dragging the rabbit behind him.

The latest message believed to be from the killer was a letter found not far from where bus driver Conrad Johnson (35) was shot on Tuesday.

On Wednesday the sniper lost patience with his pursuers, saying he will kill until the corpses are stacked up in body bags unless he is paid a $10-million ransom.

The increasingly angry threats from a man who has killed 10 and wounded three others in the greater Washington area were made in a series of handwritten letters.

The letters revealed embarrassing details about the sprawling, multi-agency investigation that appears to have been too busy to listen to the man it was looking for.

It now appears that the killer himself had been trying to call the police hot line on six occasions, only to get a busy signal or ultimately have a harassed FBI official hang up on him.

As a result of the way he had been treated, the sniper wrote “five people had to die”. The new threats emerged on a day when police cruisers prowled on the edges of schools in the several counties of Virginia and Maryland where the sniper has stalked his victims, after the authorities made public a threat to kill children.

The latest missive, single-spaced and several pages long, was discovered in a wooded area of Montgomery County, the Baltimore Sun reported, where Johnson was shot dead on his morning rounds on Tuesday.

The Maryland note bears a strong resemblance to the earlier letter from the sniper: poorly worded and ungrammatical, and suggesting the writer is not a native English speaker.

The sniper said the threats were retribution for his treatment by police, who hung up on him on six occasions. On Wednesday the authorities confirmed that at least two of his phone calls had been mishandled by an FBI trainee staffing the public tip line.

Apparently the trainee thought the call from the sniper was a hoax, a mistaken assumption that set off an angry tirade, with the killer screaming “Hear me out” and “I’m in charge”, and “I am God” before the trainee put the phone down, The Washington Post reported.

“She pretty much blew him off,” one official is quoted as saying.

With tensions ratcheted up by the direct threat to children, pressures were mounting on police to show some progress in their hunt for the killer.