Alleged snipers left trail of casual contacts across Bellingham

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

Police and FBI agents fanned out across Bellingham and Whatcom County on Wednesday and Thursday, talking with people who may have known the two men now being held as suspects in the deadly sniper shootings in suburban Washington, D.C.

They visited Bellingham's Lighthouse Mission, where suspects John Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, lived in late 2001 and early 2002.

They went to Bellingham High School, where Malvo attended classes for a few months late last year, and the Whatcom Family YMCA, where the two men worked out.

They visited the homes and offices of people who had met the men.

Muhammad and Malvo only lived in Bellingham for a matter of months. But that was long enough for them to draw the attention of police and sheriff's deputies, to leave the impression with some locals that they were polite, articulate people who did not talk much about themselves.


Muhammad and Malvo were arrested together early Thursday morning at a Maryland rest stop while sleeping in their car. They are being held in connection with the 13 sniper attacks that killed 10 people in the past three weeks.

Lighthouse Mission officials said Thursday that Muhammad stayed there on several occasions between Aug. 6, 2001, and Jan. 27, 2002 - at various times with one or more children he claimed were his own.

On several occasions starting on Oct. 20, 2001, and then from Dec. 16, 2001, to Jan. 19, 2002, Muhammad stayed at the mission with Malvo, who he claimed was his stepson, the mission said.

Patrons at Stuart's Coffee House said Muhammad hung out there as recently as June.

The Whatcom County Sheriff's Office took three children - two from Parkview Elementary School and one from Whatcom Middle School - on Aug. 31, 2001, under a writ from Pierce County Superior Court, Sheriff's Office Lt. Jeff Parks said. He said the writ listed Muhammad as the father of the children - girls who were 8 and 9 at the time, and a boy who was 11.

The case involved custodial interference, Parks said. "I believe there's a history here where he took the kids and kept them from their mother and moved around."

Deputies turned the children over to Child Protective Services, Parks said.

Before going to the schools, deputies looked for Muhammad at Lighthouse Mission, but were told he was at work, Parks said. He said Muhammad came to the Sheriff's Office later that day and the next day to find out what happened and talked to detectives. Deputies had no contact with Malvo, Parks said.


Police talked to Malvo at Bellingham High School on Dec. 18, 2001, because he did not have any school transcripts, Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll said. Malvo told police that he came to Bellingham in October to finish high school and was living at the mission, Carroll said.

Police could not find any previous school records, Carroll said.

"We were unable to determine where he had come from," Carroll said. He said Malvo apparently left the school in a matter of days.

On Dec. 19, 2001, Malvo was in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to The Boston Globe, but he was freed for reasons that the federal agency has not explained.

"All I can say is that's part of an ongoing investigation," said John Bates, deputy chief of the Border Patrol's Blaine sector.

FBI agents visited Bellingham High on Wednesday and took documents, Carroll said. He said he did not know what agents took or what they were looking for, but said he would want documents that provided background information or handwriting samples.

Students at Bellingham High School said Malvo was quiet and serious, wore dress shoes and pressed slacks, and did not talk about his personal life. They said he changed clothes on the basketball court, where he played with hustle, and debated U.S. history with intensity.


A local man who hired Muhammad to do work for him for a couple of days last December called police Thursday morning. Police asked if Muhammad ever expressed anti-American sentiments, but he never did, said the man, who asked not to be identified.

Greg Grant, a real estate agent in Bellingham, said he also talked to FBI agents. The agents were interested in talking to the woman who formerly managed Country Garden Apartments, a complex about two miles south of Sumas that Grant owns and manages.

Grant said he took Muhammad and other Lighthouse Mission residents to the apartments to do yard work and other chores.

Carroll said several people in Bellingham had provided substantial information about Malvo and Muhammad, and urged those with information to call 676-6920.

The chief said he was "gratified that we have and will play a part in bringing about a resolution to the case."

Mayor Asmundson commended Bellingham police and the FBI, and sought to reassure city residents.

"Our connection is truly a tangential one," he said. "We are safe."