Incopetence

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by Bill Sardi

Hope that your country never has to fight a trained terrorist. The nationwide killing spree by the Beltway Snipers, while the nation stood on alert for terrorist attacks, will likely cause local police and federal investigators some agony. Unlike Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber who escaped detection by using cash instead of checks and credit cards and lived in a remote cabin with no address, the Beltway Sniper and his accomplice had left many overt clues that in hindsight make it difficult to understand how law enforcement missed their quick apprehension.

John Alan Muhammad was an expert marksman, having received training in shooting an M-16 rifle while in the military. John Lee Malvo was a 17-year old whom Muhammad had taken under his wing. Using fake documents in 2001 Muhammad obtained an Antiguan passport and was held in Antigua for attempting to smuggle two women into the US. Later that same year he was held at the Miami airport for another attempt to smuggle two Jamaican women into the country using fake documents. At the time he was using a Washington State passport under a different name, Russel Dwight.

In the State of Washington Muhammad had been caught shoplifting and had a restraining order placed on him for threats against his ex-wife. Muhammad may even be a suspect in the shooting of a 21-year old woman in Tacoma, Washington on Feb. 16, 2002, which may have been his first known killing. Muhammad certainly should have been on law enforcement’s radar screen by now.

Credit card could have been used to track snipers

On March 25, a credit card was stolen from a pouch behind the seat of a Greyhound Bus driver in Flagstaff, Arizona. The snipers later demanded $10 million be deposited to this credit card account, a demand which could not met by law enforcement agencies because the account had been closed, so the killings continued. A note from the sniper said ineptness in handling calls and not heeding demands for money “cost you five lives.” Why law enforcement officers didn’t reactivate the account and electronically place the money there is unknown. Had Muhammad or Malvo used the credit card it could have led to their earlier capture.

Friend described plans to FBI months earlier

In June of 2002, three months prior to the sniper shootings, Harjeet Singh of Bellingham, Washington, an acquaintance of Muhammad and Malvo, told FBI agents and local police that “they (Muhammad and Malvo) were likely to do a sniper attack. They told me they were going to shoot to kill.” Singh also indicated a silencer was being rigged onto a sniper rifle and that they intended to travel across the country and kill people, probably police officers, in the Washington DC area. According to an Associated Press story, the FBI chose not to interview Muhammad at the time, believing the issue of a silencer on a gun was the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms.

Caprice purchased and shootings begin

Then Muhammad and Malvo moved to the New Jersey area where along with a friend they bought a blue Chevrolet caprice from Sure Shot Auto Sales, Inc., in Trenton, on Sept. 10.

On September 14 there was a rifle shooting at a Montgomery County, Virginia shopping center which wounded a liquor store employee.

Then Muhammad and Malvo apparently fled the crime scene and drove to Montgomery, Alabama, where two women were shot as they left a convenience store on Sept. 21. A police officer gave chase on foot but was not able to catch the shooter. The shooter is believed to have been Muhammad.

Two weeks passed. Apparently Muhammad and Malvo traveled from Alabama to the Washington DC area during that time.

Then on October 3 the random serial killings began. According to a report on CNN’s website, Washington, D.C. police issued a lookout for a Chevrolet Caprice spotted driving away from the scene of the first fatal sniper shooting on October 3. But the Metropolitan D.C. Police Department said it chose not to release the information to the press because the press releases were being coordinated through the joint task force headed by the Montgomery County Police Department in Rockville.

The public was told to be on the lookout for a white truck or van. Eleven more days of killings would be charted and 20 more days would pass on the calendar before law enforcement would catch up to the snipers and arrest them because of the fixation on the white truck or van.

Baltimore police question Muhammad

On October 8, just five days after the first shooting, Baltimore police found Muhammad sleeping in the car and questioned him. But the police were looking for the white truck or van and did not detain him. Two other times police pulled over Muhammad and the Caprice was also spotted by police near the vicinity of the shootings and as a result of good police work in the field. Its New Jersey plate number jotted down at least 10 times near the crime scenes.

The Caprice was spotted slowly pulling away with its lights off on Oct. 3 shortly after 72-year old Pascal Charlot was shot and killed. The next day it was spotted again by a witness near where a woman was wounded by rifle fire outside a Michael’s craft store in Fredericksburg, Va. Then again on Oct. 13, the Baltimore policeman noticed the Caprice parked at a gas station.

Police still fixated on white van, not the Chevy Caprice

On October 13, in an interview with CNN, Montgomery Police Chief Charles A. Moore was asked about the report of a Caprice leaving the scene of the slaying in the District. Moose said investigators were aware of the sighting, but he played it down, saying there was “not a big push for public feedback on that.”

Police were still drawing their guns and stopping white vans indiscriminately, handcuffing drivers. On October 19 the Los Angeles Times reported the white van or truck was just a “needle in a haystack.” Police had just recorded white vans in the area of the shootings, but there are white vans almost everywhere. There was no hard evidence that white vans or trucks were involved any more than other vehicles.

The Work of a “pro,” an “obvious terrorist”

The lack of any physical evidence was perplexing law enforcement investigators who were looking for shell casings. Obviously, if shooting from a vehicle, no shell casings would be found. Police were saying the sniper was very cunning, “the work of a pro,” and federal authorities, in an obvious effort to capitalize on the shootings to aid their efforts to go to war against Iraq, began releasing information that Al Qaeda had trained terrorists to conduct drive-by shootings. Radio talk shows would later air rumors that John Alan Williams had changed his name to John Alan Muhammad the day following the Sept. 11, 2001 air hijackings and had uttered anti-U.S. sentiments. But Muhammad had converted to Islam in 1985 and changed his name in April of 2001. There would be no links to Al Qaeda or organized terrorist groups and the Beltway snipers.

Muhammad’s anti-U.S. feelings did not spring from the events of September 11, but according to a report in the Washington Times, Muhammad had told friends he resented having U.S. troops “used as guinea pigs” in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti deserts during the Gulf War. Muhammad had received medals for his participation in the Gulf War.

Sniper leaves more clues

On October 19 police had obtained a note left by the sniper after a shooting near a restaurant in Ashland, Va. On the previous day, October 18, a phone call by the sniper to a Roman Catholic priest mentioned Montgomery, Alabama and the words “I am God” were recalled. Police were now able to begin linking the shooting at the liquor store in Alabama with the Washington-DC sniper. Muhammad or Malvo eventually would make six calls to the police, some of which were apparently rejected as crank calls.

At one point law enforcement investigators had a particular phone booth in Richmond, Va. under surveillance. Police and federal law enforcement officials swooped down on a white van that pulled up close to use the phone. They only found two illegal immigrants and no crime weapon. Muhammad’s Chevy Caprice could be seen in the background in films of the whole event. Muhammad and Malvo were witnesses to the whole fiasco. The gas station phone was under surveillance but apparently law enforcement had forgotten to scan nearby license plates, again being solely fixated on white trucks and vans.

Later investigators had obtained a fingerprint of Malvo from the shooting in Alabama. Finally Muhammad and Malvo’s names were scrawled on the chalkboard list of suspects at the command post.

Suspects captured but police arrive late

The capture of the suspects has two versions. The first widely circulated story is that Ron Lantz, a truck driver, had pulled into a rest stop near Frederick, Maryland. Lantz is reported to have made his call to law enforcement at 1:54 AM on October 25, after double checking with a radio station on the description and plate number of the car, New Jersey tags NDA-21Z. However, the Associated Press reports that Whitney Donahue of Greencastle, Pa., was later reported to be the first to call Maryland State Police at 1:17 AM, according to Police Sergeant Steve Hassett. Because of the possibility of reward money, accuracy of the story is of importance.

Lantz reports that he had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for police to show up and arrest Muhammad and Malvo. So police would have first arrived on the scene at about 2:10 AM or thereabouts. There was a 33-minute gap between the first call from Donahue and the second call by Lantz. According to some news stories, the arrest was made shortly after 2:00 AM, almost an hour after the first telephone tip on the location of the snipers had been received.

But a report in USA Today said “state and federal agents staked out the car for two hours, then broke the windows.” The Richmond Times Dispatch reports the arrest was made at 3:19 AM. Another report in the Washington Times says there was a two-hour stakeout and planning session on how to seize the suspects. There was an obvious delay between the first and second tipster before authorities arrived on the scene. Did the police use the stakeout and planning time to cover for their late arrival? Was the stakeout and planning only about an hour, but claimed to be two hours to cover for the lack of response to the first caller?

Caprice was not lost among many leads

The Chevrolet Caprice was not a lead lost among the thousands of tips that were obviously forwarded to investigators. It has been front and center from the first day of the serial killings. Yet law enforcement chose to look elsewhere. Some 2000 law enforcement officers acting like “keystone cops” were chasing the Beltway snipers in a white van or truck when the hard clues to the snipers were right on their desks. Police keep saying they couldn’t make a connection between the Alabama shootings until the sniper called and left a telephone message suggesting they look into an event in Montgomery, Alabama. The Chevy Caprice was showing up at the crime scene time and time again, due to good police work in the field. But nobody was chasing the car down. The public was also led astray, being instructed to look for the white van or truck.

Public finally locates the suspects

The description of the Chevy Caprice was released to the public on Wednesday, October 23 by Chief Moore and Muhammad and Malvo were shortly thereafter identified as people wanted for questioning. Over 2000 law enforcement officers aided by helicopters couldn’t find the Chevy Caprice. Within hours alert citizens, not the police, would locate the car in full view at a lighted rest stop. It took two calls to law enforcement to get them to come out and arrest the suspects.

Bill Sardi [send him mail] is an investigative journalist writing from San Dimas, California.His writings on current events can be found at www.shadownews.org and in health and nutrition at www.askbillsardi.com.

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