WASHINGTON – The neatly handwritten letter was wrapped in plastic and tacked to a tree near the Virginia restaurant where a man was shot. It provided police with information that helped lead them to an Army veteran and his teenage companion, now suspected of killing 10 people during a three-week shooting spree.
The letter confirmed that the snipers had contacted police numerous times, provided a fresh lead to a crime in Montgomery, Ala., that would ultimately prove crucial in cracking the case and opened a line of communication between investigators and the killers.
"For you, Mr. Police. Call me God. Do not release to the press," says the letter, described by a federal law enforcement source.
It was left for authorities outside the Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Va., where the sniper shot and wounded a 37-year-old man walking to his car after dinner with his wife on Oct. 19. The man is recovering at a hospital.
Authorities are virtually certain the letter came from John Muhammad, 41, and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo. They are suspected of the string of sniper shootings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., that left 10 dead and three wounded. The pair is believed to have left two letters, along with a tarot card signifying death, at shooting scenes.
The men were tracked down after a caller to the police tip line urged investigators to check out a robbery and murder in Montgomery, Ala., that turned up a fingerprint of Malvo's. The letter cites specifics of those calls and mentions "priest at Ashland."
That would prove critical. Investigators had already begun checking out the Alabama case, but the Rev. William V. Sullivan of Ashland provided key details. Sullivan received a call believed to be from the sniper on Oct. 18 with another mention of Alabama, although he initially dismissed it, said the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond.
Two days later, after the letter was opened, investigators from the sniper task force interviewed Sullivan at his church and the priest confirmed the call, Apuzzo said. A law enforcement official gave the same account.
The letter includes the demand for $10 million, giving the 16-digit account number and a PIN number for a stolen Bank of America platinum credit card. "We will have unlimited withdrawal at any ATM worldwide," the letter says.
The credit card was stolen from a Greyhound bus driver in Flagstaff, Ariz., taken from a pouch behind her seat as she drove between Nogales and Flagstaff in Arizona on March 25, according to Saturday's Washington Post. Authorities later told her that her card was used to purchase gas in Tacoma, Wash., where Muhammad once lived.
The letter found in Virginia rails against police officials who answered at least six calls from Muhammad or Malvo, or both, police say. It describes the operators, some of whom are named, as incompetent and claims officials took the calls "for a hoax or a joke."
"Your failure to respond has cost you five lives," it says.
Law enforcement officials have said the calls were taken seriously, noting that dozens of people among the 100,000 tips received claimed to be the sniper or to be somehow connected to the shootings.
The letter also included the chilling postscript, publicized worldwide by police: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."
Making contact with police was a clear goal of the letter. It gave a number for a phone booth outside the Ponderosa restaurant in Virginia, telling authorities to await a call. One law enforcement source said the phone number had one number wrong, which caused confusion and led Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles Moose to urge the sniper to try again in a public briefing.
The letter warns that by complying with the demands "you will have less body bags ... If trying to catch us now more important, then prepare your body bags. If we give you our word that is what takes place. Word is bond."
That last phrase, whose origin is unclear but may have roots in Jamaican reggae music, appeared to be important to the letter writers, so much so that Moose said "Our word is our bond" in a Wednesday briefing that appeared aimed at communicating with the sniper.
Malvo, the teenage suspect, is originally from Jamaica.