Menu

ARCHIVE

How the Cops Cracked the Case

It took old-fashioned detective work and a bit of luck to crack the Beltway Sniper case.

While police cannot yet release all the details of how they connected the dots, a picture is emerging of what evidence and information led authorities to arrest John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, at a highway rest stop in Maryland Thursday morning.

The first big break came with an angry phone call, just before the last two shootings.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, a man claiming to be the sniper called the sniper tip line and angrily told the cop who answered the phone, "I am God!" During the three-minute phone call, the caller shouted phrases such as "Don't you know who you're dealing with? Just check out the murder-robbery in Montgomery if you don't believe me!"

A tarot death card was found Oct. 7 that included the phrase "Dear Policeman, I am God," near the Bowie, Md., school where a 13-year-old boy was shot and wounded.

Last Friday, Oct. 18, apparently frustrated that police were not taking them seriously, two men called the Rev. William Sullivan at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in Ashland, Va., and told him during a three-minute garbled conversation that police should check out a crime in Montgomery, Ala.

The priest didn't take the message seriously until a man was shot and wounded in a Ponderosa parking lot in Ashland on Saturday, Oct. 19. Investigators then questioned the priest, but remained stumped. It's still unclear how investigators knew of the church's connection.

Fox News learned that the priest also told the cops that the caller referred to the "five stars" on the sniper's notes, which is why investigators took the call seriously. The five stars apparently on the written messages at the crime scenes are believed to be Jamaican references. There is a Jamaican band called Five Stars, who include in one of their songs the lyrics, "word is bond."

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose reiterated that phrase in a message to the sniper on Wednesday, Oct. 23, when Moose also referred to the "duck in a noose" message.

"You've asked us to say, quote, we have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose, end quote," Moose said. "We understand that hearing us say this is important to you. If you are reluctant to contact us, be assured that we remain ready to talk directly with you. Our word is our bond."

Also on Sunday, sniper investigators called Montgomery, Ala., police, asking for information about recent unsolved killings there. Montgomery cops said there had indeed been a murder and robbery at an ABC Beverage liquor store Sept. 21 that left one woman dead and another wounded. A patrol officer saw and chased the gunman, who got away.

There was also last week's call to authorities from someone in Tacoma, Wash., who thought Malvo could be the sniper and said someone had been using the backyard of a Tacoma home for shooting practice. The caller suspected Muhammad and someone else nicknamed "Sniper." Police then found out Malvo and Muhammad had once lived at the Tacoma house.

It was then that the pieces finally began to fall into place.

On Monday, Oct. 21, Moose sent another message to the sniper: "The person you called could not hear everything that you said ... the audio was unclear and we want to get everything right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand."

Fox News learned that one of the phone calls Moose was referring to was a 39-second call that purposely had bad audio.

FBI agents flew to Alabama Monday to examine the evidence, including a gun magazine found at the liquor store crime scene. The sniper task force's curiosity grows, and the Montgomery police chief sends some of his detectives to Washington, D.C., with files of information.

Using a computer system not available to local police, federal investigators then traced an unidentified fingerprint found on the magazine back to Malvo, who is now in custody with Muhammad in connection with the sniper shootings. The Jamaican-born teen and his mother apparently had some run-ins with immigration officials and police in December when living in Bellingham, Wash., where he was attending high school, so the government apparently had his fingerprints on file. Malvo has said he was then living in a homeless shelter with Muhammad, who he said was his father.

Earlier this week, investigators found out the boy often spent time with a former soldier, Muhammad, also known as John Williams. Muhammad had a rap sheet since a former wife had a restraining order against him.

More focus is now placed on Washington state, after investigators trace the bank account information left by the sniper in a ransom note at the Ponderosa crime scene. The bank account reportedly was that of a woman who had reported her ATM card stolen, and the card apparently was used to withdraw money in Tacoma.

By Tuesday, Oct. 22, police had traced Muhammad to a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice registered in his name in New Jersey. The car was sold to Muhammad and Nathaniel Osbourne for $250 in August 2001. Police continue to search for Osbourne.

On Wednesday morning, federal agents pounced on the Tacoma home armed with high-powered tools looking for bullets, shell casings and other possible evidence. Neighbors reported hearing frequent shooting from the house, and investigators dug up tree stumps and other items Muhammad likely used for target practice.

Later that day, federal officials obtained a warrant for Muhammad's arrest for firearms charges. They said Muhammad had a strong interest in guns and apparently talked to friends about ways to attach a silencer to a high-powered rifle.

Then, at midnight Wednesday, Moose said police were hunting down Muhammad on the weapons charges and told the nation the man may be traveling with Malvo. Muhammad's picture and a description of his vehicle were broadcast on television and information about the man was spread over the radio.

That's when truck driver Ron Lantz entered the picture.

Around 1 a.m. Thursday morning, as Lantz pulled over at a rest stop off I-70 near Frederick, Md., he spotted the blue Caprice and saw its license plate matched the one police were looking for. Lantz called the police, who swooped in around 3:19 a.m. and arrested Muhammad and Malvo while they were sleeping in the car.

Investigators and prosecutors continue to this moment to put together a solid case to put away the two men arrested.

Now that Muhammad and Malvo are in custody, details are still coming in.

On Oct. 2 or 3, Muhammad was reportedly pulled over by Montgomery County police and later by police in Washington, D.C. But his car's tag numbers came up clean, so he was let go.

On Oct. 8, after six people were killed and another two were wounded, police found Muhammad sleeping in his car in Baltimore, and let him go despite the fact that a witness reported seeing a similar Caprice -- of a different color than Muhammad's -- leaving the scene of the Washington shooting.