A U.S. Consulate official alerted authorities that sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad tried to obtain a U.S. passport in 2000 with fraudulent documents but he escaped from Antiguan custody before questioning, a task force official said Thursday.

In a letter dated March 19, 2001, to Antiguan Police Inspector Fitzroy Anthony, U.S. consular agent Juliet Ryder said Muhammad had applied for a U.S. passport on Nov. 8, 2000, in the name of Thomas Lee.

The letter, obtained by the Antiguan task force investigating Muhammad's activities while on the island between 2000 and 2001, said Muhammad came to Ryder's office in Antigua with a birth certificate from Pennsylvania that she said looked "a bit strange."

She said in the letter, first reported on Thursday in The Washington Post, that she sent the birth certificate to the U.S. Consulate in Barbados and "they confirmed it was false."

Typically, a consular officer would refer the case to the U.S. State Department's diplomatic security office and it would investigate the documents and determine if there was enough evidence to build a case against an individual, according to a State Department official, who asked not to be named and would not say what had been done in this case.

The official said Mohammed is protected under U.S. privacy laws. Both Ryder and Anthony declined to comment on Thursday.

According to Ryder's letter, on March 12, 2001, Anthony called Ryder at home and asked her if she had any information on an American man detained at the airport in Antigua.

The man — allegedly Muhammad — was using a birth certificate and a driver's license in the name of Dwight Russell of Tacoma, Wash. He had in his possession a one-way ticket to Los Angeles that he paid for in cash.

He was taken into police custody but on March 13, he walked out of the police station while a duty officer was using a telephone. He apparently was sitting in an unlocked area of the jail.

"His escape really hurt efforts in questioning him," said John Fuller, head of the Antiguan task force investigating Muhammad's activities during his stay on Antigua between 2000 and 2001.

The task force is investigating Muhammad's alleged criminal activities not necessarily to pursue charges but to determine how expansive his activities were on the Caribbean island, Fuller said.

"He went underground after that and he was very difficult to find because he used many aliases," Fuller said. "Before he was taken into custody, he wasn't on the radar screen."

Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Salvo, 17, were arrested last month and charged with murder for a monthslong shooting spree that left 14 people dead and five others wounded in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, the District of Columbia, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.

Both could face the death penalty if convicted.