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Two held in Sniper Case; Gun Found

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Two held in sniper case; gun found

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

BALTIMORE, Oct. 24 — A former soldier and a teenager arrested in connection with the sniper hunt were expected to be arraigned Thursday, as sources told NBC News the evidence against them included a rifle of the same caliber as the gun used in the killings and a car modified to make for easy shooting. Arrested as they slept in the car, the men were identified as John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Malvo, 17. Said one law enforcement source: “The general sentiment is we got our guys.”

October 24 — Police have taken two men into custody, NBC’s David Bloom reports, and sources are confident they have caught the Washington-area sniper.

NBC’S PETE WILLIAMS reported that police searched the car and found a Bushmaster rifle, one of the guns officials said is capable of firing a .223-caliber bullet — the type used in the sniper slayings. The rifle will be test fired to compare the bullets to those recovered from the sniper victims, Williams said.

Law enforcement sources told Williams that the car had been modified to make it easy for a person to shoot from the car without being detected. The back seat could be lowered and the trunk opened for a clear shot from the back of the car, the sources said.

The Associated Press reported that a rifle scope and tripod were also found in the car.

Initial reports said Muhammad is Malvo’s stepfather, but federal sources later said that was not clear.

Williams and NBC News’ David Bloom cited sources as saying Malvo and Muhammad were tied to the sniper attacks by several leads:

A Tacoma, Wash., home where Muhammad once lived was searched Wednesday, and investigators found bullet fragments as well as a tree stump that had been used for target practice.

A caller to the FBI tip line trying to convince authorities he was the sniper told them to look into a Montgomery, Ala., shooting last September. Montgomery police were notified Sunday and the city’s mayor said Thursday that a fingerprint from Malvo was eventually detected on a magazine about weapons found near that scene.

Malvo’s prints reportedly were also found on a piece of paper at one of the sniper crime scenes.

A Jamaican bank account provided by the person communicating with police was tied to Malvo, said to have been born in Jamaica.

In addition, investigators received a tip from a Tacoma-area phone, Mayor Bill Baarsma told NBC affiliate KING-TV.

“Someone in this area tipped off the FBI indicating that at least from their perspective that these two individuals, there were some problems here, there was something about them that just didn’t seem to be right,” he said. “And there were some reference and some comments that apparently had been made and from that it was determined who the individuals were, then it started really breaking fast.”

A source told the Seattle Times that a friend of Muhammad’s and Malvo’s made the call, saying he “had suspicions” about the two.

The tipster reportedly said the two sometimes took target practice at the Tacoma home even though it is in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood.

The source added that the tipster said the two fired a rifle that uses .223-caliber bullets.

HOW MEN WERE TAKEN

Muhammad and Malvo were taken into custody at 3:19 a.m. ET Thursday after a motorist at a rest stop spotted a car for which police had issued an all-points bulletin just three hours earlier. The alert included a vehicle description and license plate number.

The motorist called police around 1 a.m., and a SWAT team quickly converged on the scene to swoop down on the men.

Police closed off a portion of Interstate 70 near Myersville while they seized Muhammad and Malvo as they slept in a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. Police said they were taken into custody without incident.

The men were then taken to Montgomery County, where the sniper investigation is based.

“There’s a strong feeling these people are related to the sniper shootings,” said Douglas Gansler, the state attorney for Montgomery County. Asked if he believed the sniper was still at large, he said “no.”

Law enforcement sources told NBC News that the two could be charged with murder as early as Thursday.

Police stand next to the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice where a gun was found and two men arrested early Thursday.

WASHINGTON STATE TIE

The arrests came amid a flurry of activity in the investigation of the sniper attacks, in which 10 people have been killed and three wounded since Oct. 2.

The nationwide alert for the men and their vehicle was issued shortly after authorities descended on a home in Tacoma that Muhammad had lived in recently.

NBC’s Robert Windrem reported that Army records show Muhammad had been stationed in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Fort Ord, Calif., and Fort Lewis, Wash., which is near Tacoma, during 10 years of service that ended in 1995. His Saudi tour was during the Gulf War and at the time of his discharge he was a sergeant.

The sniper attacks

Defense sources told NBC that Muhammad had served as a vehicle mechanic.

A neighbor of the Tacoma home said he had heard shots regularly fired in the area in January. “It sounded like a high-powered rifle such as an M-16,” said Pfc. Chris Waters, a soldier at Fort Lewis. “Never more than three shots at a time. Pow. Pow. Pow.”

Waters said he called police after hearing gunshots last January.

‘NOT ACTING WITH ANY GROUP’

Malvo, who authorities said is a citizen of Jamaica, attended high school in Bellingham, Wash., last year.

Bellingham police Chief Randy Carroll told reporters Thursday that he had just spoken to an FBI investigator and that “I can tell you that in the Bellingham area, and in relation to the case, it appears that these people that have been taken into custody are not acting with any group or with any organized group of people. It appears they are and have acted on their own.”

Several federal sources told the Seattle Times that Muhammad and Malvo may have been motivated by anti-American sentiments in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Both were known to speak sympathetically about the men who hijacked the jetliners that crashed in near Washington and in New York and Pennsylvania, the sources said.

But neither man was believed to be associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network, the sources said.

Muhammad had changed his last name from Williams last year and had converted to Islam many years earlier, the sources told the Times.

EARLIER SIGHTINGS

Soon after the arrests, more reports about earlier circumstances surfaced that could tie the men to the area:

Baltimore police stopped Muhammad on Oct. 8, MSNBC’s Bob Kur reported, but had no clue that he was tied to the hunt. He apparently was sleeping in his car and was questioned by police, who did not get a background search back until Wednesday.

After a sniper slaying on Oct. 3, police in Washington, D.C., said they were looking for an older burgundy Caprice with tinted windows that was seen driving away with its lights off. Sightings at later shootings led police to focus on white vans.

MESSAGE TO SNIPER

A few hours before the men were taken into custody, Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose, speaking as much to the sniper as to the assembled press corps, offered another message to the person believed responsible for the killings.

“We understand you communicated with us by calling several different locations,” Moose said. “Our inability to talk has been a concern for us as it has been for you. You have indicated that you want us to do and say certain things. You asked us to say, ‘We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.’ We understand that hearing us say this is important to you.

“However, we want you to know how difficult it has been to understand what you want because you have chosen to use only notes, indirect messages and calls to other jurisdictions,” Moose continued. “The solution remains to call us and get a private toll-free number established just for you.”

After mentioning the P.O. box opened for communication from the public, Moose said, “If you are reluctant to contact us, be assured that we remain ready to talk directly with you. Our word is our bond.”

Authorities established a hot line — 1-888-324-9800 — for tips but said they were still overwhelmed and urged only callers with specific leads to call. People with non-urgent information should submit tips online at www.fbi.gov/sniper/sniper.htm.

People can also write in with tips to P.O. Box 7875, Gaithersburg, Md. 20898-7875.

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