The bitter divorce of an Army veteran linked by police to the deadly sniper attacks gave authorities quick, legal justification to arrest him after he was discovered sleeping in a car at an interstate rest stop.
Divorce papers indicate the ex-wife of John A. Muhammad, 41, had obtained a restraining order in Pierce County, Wash., that effectively prevented him from possessing a firearm.
A U.S. law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Muhammad was held initially Thursday for violating that order. Federal law prohibits anyone who is the subject of a domestic violence-related restraining order from owning a gun.
Authorities believe that Muhammad's ex-wife, formerly Mildred Denise Williams, might explain Muhammad's movements in the Washington area. She lives with her sister in Clinton, Md., about 26 miles from the site of the earliest sniper attacks.
Mrs. Williams won a restraining order against Muhammad on June 21, 2000. In court documents filed in Pierce County, she said her husband threatened to kill her while she was at Tacoma General Hospital in May 2000. "The staff took the necessary security actions to protect me," she stated in court documents. "I am in fear for my life. He has made threats to destroy me."
Mrs. Williams alleged in court papers filed in October 2000 that Muhammad had engaged in "physical, sexual or a pattern of emotional abuse of a child" and asked a judge to limit any visitation with the couple's three children.
"I am afraid of John," she wrote in court papers filed in March 2000. "He was a demolition expert in the military. He is behaving very irrational. Whenever he does talk with me, he always says that he's going to destroy my life."
She also alleged that Muhammad had committed "abusive use of conflict ... which creates the danger of serious damage to the child's psychological development," and alleged that he had inappropriately prevented her from spending time with the children.
The couple married on March 10, 1988, at Fort Lewis, Wash., and had three children, John Allen Williams, now 12, Salena Denise Williams, now 10, and Taalibah Aanisah Muhammad, now 9.
They separated on Sept. 8, 1999, because the marriage was "irretrievably broken," court papers said. Mrs. Williams was granted a default divorce on Oct. 6, 2000, apparently because Muhammad never responded to her complaint, court documents said.
The divorce gave her full custody of her children and denied Muhammad any visitation rights "based on prior actions of domestic violence and abduction of children."
Muhammad claimed the divorce was bogus, saying he was never served with the proper documents.
Mrs. Williams wrote in January 2001 that Muhammad had "abducted" her three children on March 27, 2000, and that she had not seen them since.
"At the present time, my ex-husband, John, still has the children," she wrote. "I've been awarded custody of the children. Their whereabouts are unknown." She added that Muhammad "has domestic violence charges on his record."
On Aug. 31, 2001, the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office placed the children in the care of Child Protective Services while investigators worked to resolve the custody dispute.
The children were released to Mildred Williams a few days later.
Muhammad and his former wife operated an automotive repair shop, Express Car/Truck Mechanic Service Inc. of Tacoma, Wash., which they established in 1999. The business no longer exists.
Muhammad's first marriage ended in March 1988 — about 2 years after he and his first wife, Carol Williams, separated four years after getting married.
The couple was granted joint custody of their only child, a son, Lindberg Williams, now 20.
Muhammad later obtained a restraining order barring his ex-wife from coming near him or their son. He alleged that she had physically abused the boy — an allegation she denied.
The boy was returned to Louisiana, and the father was not granted sole custody. It was not clear if the couple continued to share joint custody.