Crime

Sniper suspect left danger signs in Bellingham

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally was published on Oct. 25, 2002.

The people at Stuart's Coffee House remember John Allen Muhammad as a quiet chess player who never wanted to be apart from his big, stuffed, heavy U.S. Army duffel bag.

At this point, nobody can prove that the bag Muhammad was lugging around contained the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that police found in his car when he and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo were arrested at a Maryland rest stop early Thursday. By the end of the day, ballistics tests had tied that weapon to the bloody East Coast sniping spree that left 10 people dead.

But federal court records filed in Seattle indicate that Muhammad owned the weapon in question in May 2000, well before he and Malvo arrived in Bellingham.

The Rev. Al Archer, director of the Lighthouse Mission where Muhammad lived off and on for months, remembers him as a guy who made a good first impression - too good.

"On the surface he was squeaky clean," Archer said. "He was almost too good to believe. I kind of quit believing."

After he got to know Muhammad better, Archer grew so suspicious of his odd behavior that he suspected him of being part of a terrorist organization, and he called the FBI. But that was in October 2001, in the aftershock of the World Trade Center massacre, and Archer doesn't think he got the feds' attention.

"I felt they probably threw the note in the trash," he said.

MYSTERY BAG

At Stuart's, 1302 Bay St., suspicions were never aroused to that extent. Quirky people are hardly a novelty there, employees said.

Nobody ever got a peek inside Muhammad's duffel bag, but singer Hannah Parks, who often performs at Stuart's, said it seemed a lot heavier than it would have been if it only contained clothes. She also thought it sometimes made a metallic sound when Muhammad moved it around.

Mark Wendover and Ellie Savage, who work nights at Stuart's, said Muhammad wanted to take the duffel into the restroom with him, even though that's against the rules because of management's concerns about drug dealing. That didn't deter Muhammad.

"He snuck it into the back bathroom where we couldn't see it," Wendover said.

Although Muhammad spent time at the homeless shelter, he sometimes flashed a wallet thick with currency, and showed off expensive-looking watches and gold bracelets, Parks said.

At the mission, Archer said, Muhammad would stay for a few days and then leave, saying he was traveling to Denver and New Orleans, among other places. The odd part was that Muhammad was traveling by airplane. Archer learned that when an airline ticket agent called the mission asking for Muhammad.

"At the mission, not many airline agents call and ask for residents," Archer said.

Muhammad's frequent flyer status seemed odd to other people. One of them was Greg Grant, a real estate agent in Bellingham who owns and manages an apartment complex about two miles south of Sumas on Highway 9. Last year, Grant said, he would often drive residents of Lighthouse Mission - including Muhammad on several occasions - to the apartments to do yard work and other chores, then back to the mission once the work was done.

Once, Muhammad told Grant that he had to travel a long distance, possibly to Jamaica or the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, to sign some papers on a land sale, Grant said. Grant said he wondered why Muhammad would fly to do that when the job could be handled by mail.

In the post 9-11 climate, Archer felt it was worth a call to the FBI.

"I felt like he was part of an organization. I felt like he had some connection with terrorists. ¼ I said he's got connections somewhere with somebody who's got money," Archer remembered telling the FBI.

He also contacted Bellingham police with his concerns.

"We both agreed there was something not right, but there was nothing they could nail him with," Archer said.

Archer said he can't help but wonder what would have happened if his concerns had been taken more seriously.

"I always figured we would read about John in the news," he said. "He was involved in something. He wasn't just an average, ordinary guy. ¼ If he had been stopped at that time, a lot of people would be alive who are not."

VISIT BY MOTHER

Also in the fall or early winter of 2001, Archer said he first made the acquaintance of Una James, who told Archer that she was Malvo's mother. Archer said she arrived in Bellingham with five packing crates of belongings.

"She said she had come bag and baggage to Bellingham to try and get her son back," Archer said.

But James had immigration problems. When she tried to check into Agape Women's & Children's Home, the mission's lodgings for homeless women, immigration agents were waiting to take her into custody. She eventually got back to Bellingham and was reunited with Malvo, Archer said. But it didn't last long.

He was sketchy on details, but at some point James and Malvo were arrested again in Seattle, and Malvo eventually was released and wound up with Muhammad again. James eventually made it back to Bellingham to reclaim her five packing boxes from the mission warehouse, but she then left the city for good, without her son.

EARLIER WARNING

Another indicator of possible danger arose when Muhammad and Malvo reportedly began talking to people about violent plots. Bellingham lawyer Patrick Lackie said a client of his, Harjeep Singh, met Muhammad and Malvo and struck up a friendship while exercising at Whatcom Family YMCA.

But Singh was soon put off by the men's "anti-American statements," Lackie said. They also spoke of violent plans, but offered few details, the lawyer said.

"At some point, they had told him that they wanted to make a silencer and wanted to know if he would help them," Lackie said. "And they had said they had plans to shoot police.

"He didn't know if it was real or not, or if it was just talking big," Lackie said. "He really didn't know them. They seemed like decent guys on the outside."

Singh told the men, whom he knew as John and Lee Muhammad, that he didn't know how to make silencers for guns, and didn't want to be involved in their plans, Lackie said. He then distanced himself from the men, Lackie said.

In June, when Singh was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge, he told police about the conversations with Muhammad and Malvo, Lackie said. The police told the FBI, he said.

"They never told him they were going to do what they have just been accused of doing," the lawyer said. "They never told him of any specific plan, they basically conveyed ideas to him about things that they wanted to do or thought about doing.

"He didn't know if they were just huffing and puffing and mad at the government. But they said some bad things and obviously he thought enough of it that he told police about it."

Singh didn't think Muhammad and Malvo had anything to do with the sniper shootings near Washington, D.C., until he saw their photos on television Thursday, Lackie said.

According to federal court records, Muhammad told a former Army buddy four months ago that he tried to equip an assault rifle with a silencer.

Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll confirmed that Singh told police and FBI agents months ago about conversations he'd had with Malvo and Muhammad.

"It was pretty much just general information and certainly did not give us any indication that Mr. Malvo or Mr. Muhammad's future would lead them to where they are today," Carroll said. "The information he gave us did not lead us to a criminal investigation and in fact did not lead us anywhere."

The FBI and police went back and talked with Singh on Wednesday, Carroll said. He said Singh gave different information from what he said earlier, but would not elaborate.

"I think that Mr. Singh is trying to position himself in this community to be a bigger part of the totality of the circumstances than he truly is," Carroll said.

KEPT TO THEMSELVES

Besides the occasional issues with the duffel bag, Muhammad and Malvo didn't cause any trouble at Stuart's Coffee House, employees said. They mostly kept to themselves; they played chess, often until midnight closing time; and didn't mingle much, even with other chess players.

"I don't think I ever saw either of them smile," Savage said.

Muhammad was quiet and Malvo, whom Muhammad referred to as his stepson, seemed almost speechless.

"I thought (Muhammad) might be beating up his son or something because he (Malvo) was so intimidated by everything," Parks said. "The kid did not talk."

Some of Muhammad's ex-in-laws told the Associated Press that Muhammad was keeping the teen-ager on a diet of crackers, honey and nutritional supplements, and had earlier kept an older son on a similar martial regimen of exercise and spartan diet.

While Muhammad seldom called attention to himself, Parks also said Muhammad gave her some unwelcome attention. He almost seemed to be following her around, she said. Whenever she was at Stuart's, he would be there. When she moved her singing act out onto downtown streets, Muhammad would nearly always appear a few minutes later.

Muhammad also pestered her for her address and phone number, telling her that he was a music producer and he wanted to help her career.

"I asked him for a business card and he said he didn't have any," Parks said. "He said he played the trumpet and he had all these connections ¼ but he looked like a homeless guy, so it was sketchy."

Parks also said Muhammad tried to get her into conversations about politics and religion, subjects she said she prefers to avoid. He seemed even more interested in those subjects after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said.

Although Parks wasn't interested in hearing his views at length, she does remember that "he definitely talked about how he wasn't into America."

He also passed out pro-Islamic fliers on the street from time to time, she said.

While local authorities have said they believe Muhammad and Malvo left Bellingham for good about nine months ago, after his last stint at Lighthouse Mission, Wendover and Savage are nearly certain the pair were at Stuart's around April and May. And Parks insists they were there as late as June.

She remembers Muhammad trying to convince her to drive cross-county with him. But her interest in that proposition was zero.

"Anybody with that much money who's roughing around on the street, you gotta wonder about," she said.



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