Published January 23, 2003
SEATTLE – John Allen Muhammad's life has followed a tangled path.
From what relatives describe as a normal childhood in Louisiana, he faced disciplinary charges in the National Guard, then earned Army honors for marksmanship and Gulf War service. He embraced Islam. He also divorced twice, started and abandoned a karate school, and slid into homelessness.
Relatives say he exerted strict control over the boy he called his son, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, and divorce papers chronicle the collapse of his second marriage and his ex-wife's fear that he would follow through on his threats to destroy her life.
"The more I think about it, you know, it seems like I can remember him being bitter, just bitter about life," said Felix Strozier of Tacoma, who started a karate school with Muhammad in 1997.
Muhammad, 41, and Malvo were arrested early Thursday while sleeping in a car at a rest stop in Maryland, wanted for questioning in the serial slayings that have terrorized the Washington, D.C., area for three weeks. Thirteen people were shot, 10 fatally.
Two senior federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said decisions have yet to be made about possible charges against Muhammad and Malvo, who was believed to be a Jamaican citizen and whose relationship to Muhammad was not immediately clear.
Muhammad was ordered held during a court appearance Thursday. Malvo is considered by the court to be a juvenile, and all of his proceedings are closed.
Federal officials told The Seattle Times on condition of anonymity that Muhammad and Malvo might have been motivated by anti-American sentiments. But neither was believed to be associated with the Al Qaeda terrorist network or with James Ujaama, a Seattle Muslim being held on a federal terrorism charge.
Muhammad, then known as John Allen Williams, was born and raised in Baton Rouge, La. He was a track and football star at Scotlandville High School, said James "Houseman" Johnson, owner of Houseman's Kitchen, a Scotlandville soul food restaurant.
His mother died when he was little and his dad was not around, so he was raised by his grandfather and his aunt, said Edward Holiday, a cousin who is four years younger and looked to him as a role model.
Williams married his high school sweetheart four years after his 1978 graduation. He converted to Islam and changed his last name after he left Baton Rouge in 1985, according to relatives of Carol Williams.
When he visited Louisiana in July, some saw a definite change.
"He just wasn't that same fresh, clean and ready-for-business," Holiday said. "He didn't look like a guy who is doing as good as he said he did."
Said Denitra King, a neighbor: "He wasn't the same person. He just looked different."
The two old friends said he talked often about his Muslim beliefs. They said he didn't like the idea of the United States being involved in Afghanistan, although he didn't show any anger about it.
Muhammad served from 1978 to 1985 in the Louisiana National Guard, where he faced disciplinary charges twice — including a conviction for striking a noncommissioned officer in the head while on duty.
He enlisted in the Army in November 1985 and was posted to Fort Lewis in Washington state, then transferred to Germany in 1990, to Fort Ord, Calif., in 1992, and back to Fort Lewis the following year.
Muhammad didn't receiver sniper training during his Army career, but he did receive a Marksmanship Badge with expert rating — the highest of three ratings — in use of the M-16 rifle, according to Army records.
He was trained mainly as a combat enginer, his specialty in the 1991 Gulf War, and also as a metal worker and a water transport specialist. His highest ranking on active duty was sergeant.
After his discharge in April 1994, he served in the Oregon National Guard until 1995.
Carol Williams' sister, Sheron Norman, said the couple had a bitter custody dispute over their son, now 20. In 1994, the son visited Muhammad in Washington state for the summer, but failed to return until his mother got a court order, Norman said.
When he returned, Norman said, the boy had lost 20 pounds. She said he described being subjected to a military-like routine of exercise and a strict diet.
The family saw Muhammad three months ago, when they met Malvo. Norman said Malvo followed a strict diet and ate only crackers and honey and nutritional supplements.
"You could tell he was scared," she said. "He was very, very quiet. You could tell he didn't like the way he was living."
Muhammad's second wife, Mildred Muhammad, sought a restraining order after she separated from him in March 2000. She told the court her estranged husband was "irrational" and called her repeatedly, "threatening to destroy my life."
Court records of their divorce said their three children risked psychological damage because of Muhammad's "abusive use of conflict."
Neighbors in Tacoma remember seeing Mildred Muhammad clad in traditional Muslim robes and a veil. They described her husband as reclusive and unfriendly.
"He would just kind of look at me shrug me off and turn away," said neighbor Lee Ann Terlaje. She said the marriage apparently ended shortly before the family moved out of the house in 2000.
But Muhammad presented a different face to Deborah Waters, who lived across the street from the duplex where he lived for about a month this summer. On Wednesday, FBI agents searched the back yard of the duplex and hauled away evidence, including a tree stump that may contain bullet fragments.
"He seemed extremely nice, maybe a quiet shy guy, but definitely not mean or evil," Waters said. She knew him as Williams, not Muhammad, and said he took her 7-year-old son on trips to the pool and a nearby park.
In February, Tacoma police investigated a shoplifting incident in which Muhammad and a second man were seen leaving a store in Tacoma without paying for about $27 worth of food, police spokesman Jim Mattheis said. Arrest warrants were issued for both after they failed to show up in court.
Muhammed was arrested twice in 1995 for driving with a suspended license, Mattheis said.
Felix Strozier met Muhammad in 1997 at a karate competition. Muhammad wanted Strozier to teach Malvo. He convinced Strozier they should start a karate school together, promising he'd bring in lots of Muslim students.
But Strozier said they split unhappily when Muhammad failed to follow through on his promises.
Police believe Malvo became like an informal stepson to Muhammad because Muhammad had a relationship with the boy's mother and for awhile the three lived in a familial type arrangement, according to a senior law enforcment source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It was almost like an informal or commonlaw stepson," the source said.
About a year ago, Muhammad and Malvo surfaced about 90 miles north of Tacoma in Bellingham, Wash., a quiet town just south of the Canadian border. They lived in a homeless shelter and Malvo attended high school for a few months. Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll said Malvo "spent a lot of time in the library studying and was not openly gregarious with the other students."
Many classmates don't remember Malvo. But Kateland Watson, 15, said she had a history class with him.
"He just kind of sat there. I didn't really pay much attention to him," she said. "He was quiet and kind of cute."
Meanwhile, Muhammad applied for a job at the Waterfront Bar and Grill, where he often came to sit and drink beer.
"He was pretty pleasant," owner Lynne Farmer said.