MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A month ago, an Alabama police officer may have come within a few feet of catching one of the men now being questioned in the deadly sniper attacks near the nation's capital.
Police Chief John Wilson said Thursday the officer chased after a teenager suspected of killing a liquor store clerk Sept. 21 but couldn't quite get close enough.
Wilson said the man who fled had "some very good similarities" to John Lee Malvo, a 17-year-old arrested Thursday in Maryland along with his Army veteran stepfather, John Allen Muhammad. Both are being held for questioning in the sniper attacks that have left 10 people dead and three others wounded.
Mayor Bobby Bright said Malvo's fingerprint was found on a weapons magazine in a parking lot outside the liquor store. It was unclear Thursday why Malvo might have been in Montgomery, but Wilson said he did not believe the teen had ties to the city.
The police chief said a firm connection between the sniper shootings and the slaying here was still being sought. But he said authorities were very interested in talking with Malvo, and that an officer had been sent to Maryland.
The investigation of the liquor store killing had stalled and there was no speculation of any connection to the October sniper siege until a call was placed to the sniper task force.
On Thursday, Oct. 17, a Montgomery County, Md., public information officer received a call from someone authorities now believe was the sniper. The caller referred to a robbery-homicide in "Montgomery."
The next day, a priest in Ashland, Va., received a call from someone who said he was God and mentioned a crime in Montgomery, Ala., according to the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. Apuzzo said the priest, Monsignor William V. Sullivan, dismissed the call as a prank.
After a shooting in Ashland Saturday, task force members visited Sullivan at his church Sunday, according to Apuzzo, and the priest told them about the call.
Montgomery, Ala., police said they were contacted by the task force Sunday.
However, the law enforcement source gave a different account. The source said a priest contacted the task force Friday after getting a call from the sniper.
Apuzzo said Sullivan was on a retreat and was not available for comment Thursday.
Claudine Parker, 52, was shot to death and co-worker Kellie Adams, 24, was critically wounded in the Montgomery shooting, which occurred after they closed the store. Police said it was a robbery or an attempted robbery because the gunman was seen standing over a victim and rifling through her purse.
Adams, who is still recovering from her injuries, said Thursday she never lost consciousness after being shot and remembers seeing a slender black man standing over her, but that she only saw him from the waist down.
"He must have been an excellent marksman because he was able to turn around and shoot Claudine in the back," Adams said.
Some aspects of the Alabama and Washington-area crimes are different: Wilson said the gun used here was a different caliber from the .223-caliber weapon used in the sniper attacks. He also said Parker was apparently killed by a handgun, while the weapon in Maryland is believed to be a rifle.
The police chief said two officers in a patrol car across the street at a Taco Bell heard the gunfire outside the liquor store and gave chase on foot, with one narrowly missing the suspect.
A clerk in an adjoining store recalled how she and a friend heard the shots and ran into a bathroom.
"We were terrified," said Donna Weathers. "My friend saw him run by, but she couldn't identify him."
A member of Parker's family said officers could have done more to stop the killer, possibly avoiding the sniper shootings that followed. "I wonder why they didn't shoot him in the foot or something," said sister-in-law Odean Lee of Seattle, Wash.
Wilson said he would not second-guess the judgment of the officer, who did consider firing his gun but did not fire.
"He's looking at a fleeing suspect who's not a threat to him, and he was not fully aware of what had transpired" at the shooting scene, Wilson said. "The officer feels just as bad about not catching the suspect for the crime here as anything else."
Adams said her back was to the street when a single shot struck her just below the base of her skull. She said the gunman had not approached them.
"I never saw a face. I never saw him, period," Adams told the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper.
The investigation of the liquor store killing had stalled and there was no speculation of any connection to the sniper siege until a call was placed to the sniper task force tip line.
The mayor said the caller apparently claimed responsibility for both the sniper shootings and the Montgomery shooting. Bright said the tip-line caller told authorities to contact Montgomery officials if they didn't believe he was responsible for the sniper shootings, which began Oct. 2.
That apparent boast led federal investigators to check with investigators here Sunday night.
After his fingerprint was found here, authorities traced Malvo to a home in Tacoma, Wash., where Muhammad is believed to have once lived and which authorities searched Wednesday.