Published October 25, 2002
ROCKVILLE, Md. – A boastful phone call appears to have helped lead to just the break the desperate sniper task force needed.
Apparently intent on proving his murderous credentials, someone called the sniper task force and urged police to check out an incident in "Montgomery," officials said.
Then a priest in Ashland, Va., received a call from the sniper, according to the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. The caller said he was God and mentioned a crime in Montgomery, Ala.
From there, investigators followed an evidence trail that crisscrossed the country from Montgomery, Ala., to Tacoma, Wash., to a darkened rest stop off I-70 in Frederick County, Md., where two men were arrested Thursday.
The call was one in a series of cryptic and curious communications attributed to the sniper.
The messages apparently began with a tarot death card found Oct. 7 that carried a chilling taunt, "Dear Policeman, I am God." On Saturday, police found a rambling note at the scene of a shooting in Ashland, Va.
The note demanded $10 million, sources said, and warned that children were not safe "anywhere, at any time." The writer also complained he had called the tip line several times, but could not get through or found his boasts were dismissed.
"He must have been frustrated by this, that no one would take him seriously," said Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Radford, Va.
The exact communications have not been disclosed by police, but some of the details could be gleaned from the words of Montgomery County Police Charles Moose. The chief made several public statements to the sniper, urging him to continue trying to contact authorities.
At one point, Moose had to say "we have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose" to comply with the sniper's wishes — an apparent reference to a Cherokee Indian story about an arrogant rabbit that was duped by the duck he tried to catch.
Burke suggested the demands escalated and statements grew bolder because the sniper felt "entitled" to attention.
Ego was another likely motivation, said Carl Klockars, a criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware.
"He simply wanted to bask in the limelight — maybe read about himself in the paper some more," Klockars said.
Thousands of local and federal agents were devoted to the case, and the government even provided Defense Department aircraft for surveillance as the fear mushroomed across Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Seemingly promising leads vanished — two men detained were later turned over to immigration officials — and criticism mounted as authorities conceded that no one was safe. The death toll reached 10 and three other people were wounded in an increasingly wide geographic area.
There were questions, too: Did authorities miss clues? The (Baltimore) Sun reported one of the two suspects arrested Thursday for questioning was stopped by Baltimore police Oct. 8 after one of the shootings, but let go because investigators were looking for a white van.
By Sunday, police in Montgomery, Ala., had been tipped off by Maryland authorities that the suspected sniper may have struck there a month ago.
Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright said the caller told a tip line representative that he was responsible for the killing spree — and to contact "Montgomery" officials if they didn't believe him.
Investigators zeroed in on a shooting outside a liquor store on Sept. 21. One woman was killed and another seriously wounded in what was originally considered only a botched robbery.
Montgomery Police Chief John Wilson said the gun used in Alabama was not the one used to kill people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. But the mayor said a lone fingerprint gave police a key clue.
The print was found on a weapons magazine outside the liquor store and it belonged to John Lee Malvo, 17. Police quickly traced Malvo to a rental home in Tacoma, where he once lived with a former Army soldier named John Allen Muhammad.
By Wednesday afternoon, FBI agents were picking through the ground outside the home looking for ammunition evidence. A tree stump was removed and carted off to a Maryland lab for analysis.
Neighbors told investigators the former tenants had taken target practice in the backyard.
"It sounded like a high-powered rifle such as an M-16," recalled Pfc. Chris Waters, a Fort Lewis soldier who lives across the street.
By Wednesday night, Moose had a new statement: Muhammad was wanted for questioning in the sniper slayings, and police issued an alert for a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey license plates.
A short time later, a witness at the Maryland rest stop called police after spotting the men sleeping inside a car.
The sniper task force swept in and arrested the men without a struggle.