Descent Into Evil

John Williams had been a talkative little showoff when he was growing up. His grandfather, who raised him after his mother died and his father disappeared, nicknamed him "Governor." He was still strutting when he went to visit his family in Baton Rouge, La., about nine months ago, with a man he said he was helping travel back to Jamaica in tow. He claimed that he was in the immigrant "import-export business," according to his cousin Charlene Anderson. "He said he helped people who were in trouble get in and out of the country. He was so well dressed, kind of like he had been put up on a shelf," she told NEWSWEEK. But when John, who had changed his last name to Muhammad, showed up a few months later, late last summer, he was dirty and hungry, and his posturing had veered into dangerous delusion. Summoning Anderson into the kitchen, he closed the door and unzipped a long green duffel bag. Inside the bag was a case, and inside the case was a rifle. Muhammad explained that he was working for a secret Special Forces group to recover missing C-4 explosives stolen from a military base by drug smugglers. Muhammad was accompanied by a teenage boy named Lee. "Lee's not my son," Muhammad explained. "He's on the special team with me. He was hired to blend in with the juveniles on the street. See that boy? He's highly trained." She asked why he didn't work through local law enforcement. "He told me he couldn't do that because nobody knew they existed," she says. Cousin Charlene wasn't sure what to believe. "I thought it was very strange. It really spooked me."

If authorities are right, by the time Muhammad and his young sidekick were done last week, many millions of people had been traumatized by their grotesque playacting. The two pretenders left a blood-soaked trail as they wandered from Washington state to Alabama to metropolitan Washington, D.C. They left little catch-me-if-you-can clues and odd allusions to Jamaican music and folklore. They methodically shot people of all ages, genders and races, and they made outrageous demands for money. But it was never very clear what they were really up to, aside from trying to get attention.

That they got. Before moving in for the arrest last week, the Feds and the police prepared for pitched battle. Local police SWAT teams, the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team and other state and federal paramilitary units strapped on their body armor and shouldered their automatic weapons. For more than two hours, at a McDonald's parking lot near the highway rest stop where the snipers' car had been spotted, the assault was elaborately staged and mounted. Finally, at about 3 a.m., as choppers roared overhead and searchlights glared, the black ninjas leapt into action and encountered the enemy... peacefully dozing. One official said the sniper suspects barely stirred as police smashed through the windows of the car and screamed at the men to surrender. "They practically slept through the takedown," the official said.

Maybe they were just worn out by shooting people (13 over 21 days, plus two more in Alabama in late September; 11 died). Maybe they hadn't heard the news reports that the Feds were closing in. Whatever the case, few law-enforcement officials expected such a docile ending to a ghastly siege that had terrorized metropolitan Washington and transfixed the media. The suspects, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, were penniless drifters. They were not stumblebums. Muhammad, though an insubordinate soldier, had been a skilled marksman in the Army. He had transformed his aged Chevy Caprice into a kind of Rube Goldberg killing machine by cutting a hole in the trunk to help create a hidden sniper's perch. He had trained his young friend Malvo, whom he reportedly called "Sniper," to shoot a human being from a hundred yards or so. Police believe that the two men took turns and theorized that Muhammad took the more difficult head shots, while Malvo aimed for the victim's torso.

But demonic geniuses they were not. As the death toll mounted and the talking heads blathered, an ever more menacing picture of the sniper had seized the public imagination. He was the Scarlet Pimpernel with an assault weapon, clever, taunting, elusive, ghosting about in a white van that seemed to magically melt through massive dragnets. Not just the cable-TV criminologists but also the government's own experts were fooled. Until the last couple of days, most top officials at the state-local-federal joint command center in Rockville, Md., thought they were looking for an "intelligent, well-organized white male," one veteran federal investigator told NEWSWEEK.

Someone capable of randomly picking off pretty much anyone who walked into his gun sights, day after day, must be in the thrall of some frothing-at-the-mouth psychosis--if not the Devil, certainly his disciples. Right? Some top federal officials had suspected that the snipers were Qaeda assassins. Muhammad may have conceivably been a sympathizer or a self-recruited terrorist. A convert to Islam who claimed to have provided security for Louis Farrakhan during the 1995 Million Man March on Washington, Muhammad had been heard by neighbors praising the 9-11 hijackers for their efficiency. But his motives, as well as the nature of his relationship with the teenage Malvo, remain murky. His anger at his ex-wife over a particularly ugly child-custody battle appears to have enraged him more than any political or religious obsession. He is a chilling figure, but mostly because he seems to have shown that almost any sore loser with a store-bought gun and a sniper scope can paralyze the nation's capital. Imagine what a few well-trained teams could do.

The made-for-TV plot line appeared to pit the dogged Montgomery County, Md., police chief, Charles A. Moose, in an almost personal test of wills with the mysterious sniper. After grimacing and glowering through his daily press briefings, Chief Moose finally permitted himself to smile last Thursday, as he reeled off the names of all the different state, local and federal agency officials who shared in the glory of the capture. But the Feds and locals soon started squabbling over the honor (and headlines) of prosecuting Muhammad and Malvo. Federal prosecutors interrupted a potentially promising interrogation by local officials in order to move the suspects to a federal court--where the two men were assigned lawyers and clammed up. Informed sources tell NEWSWEEK that the search for the snipers was chaotic and sometimes floundering, that various cliques among the more than a dozen different jurisdictions or law- enforcement agencies handling the case often failed to communicate with each other, sometimes even when they were in the same room.

The missed chances during the three-week investigation are hard to fathom even for those not directly affected, but probably unforgivable to the families of the victims. While investigators searched for the mythical white van, Muhammad's blue Caprice had repeated encounters with police. On Oct. 3, two hours before the snipers shot a 72-year-old man standing on a curb and just eight hours after completing a rampage that claimed five victims, D.C. police pulled over the Caprice on a minor traffic violation--and let him go. Early on Oct. 8, the day after he shot a 13-year-old outside his middle school, Muhammad was found asleep in his car by Baltimore police. The patrolmen told him to move on. And on Oct. 21, the day before the snipers claimed their final victim, a bus driver, Fairfax, Va., police caught Muhammad running a red light. The Washington Post reported last week that Muhammad's battered Caprice attracted enough suspicion over the past month that "on at least 10 different occasions," the authorities ran its license plate through the national police database. Finding nothing, the police let the car, and its drivers, go on their way.

The snipers wanted to talk to the police. But the police kept hanging up. It's not that investigators didn't wish to open a dialogue. Chief Moose's emotional outburst at the press for leaking the first clues left by the sniper--the tarot card and the empty .223 shell casing after the school shooting on Oct. 7--was intentionally exaggerated, according to an informed source. Moose was trying to signal the snipers that he really did want to open a private channel. But when the snipers tried to call the FBI tip line or the local police, they couldn't get anyone to pay attention. Overwhelmed by the volume of calls (more than 100,000) and inadequately prepared to spot the snipers' secret code, the phone operators dismissed the callers as cranks.

It was the snipers' frustration over what they called, in a letter tacked to a tree, "the incompetence of your force" that may have finally led Muhammad and Malvo to play into the hands of Chief Moose's team. The endgame of the investigation, reconstructed by NEWSWEEK, was a wild coast-to-coast race to connect the dots and find the killers before they struck again--or slipped away for good. Like most police investigations, its success owed more to luck and the clumsiness of the culprits than brilliant criminal profiling or dazzling forensics. Ultimately, authorities believe, the snipers were done in by their egos, their insistence on gaining attention and notoriety. The first real break in the case may have come when Muhammad and Malvo couldn't resist bragging about their past exploits.

I. TANGLED LIVES

It is hard to know just how John Muhammad might have crossed over from being a run-of-the-mill loser, an overbearing father who conned and intimidated his ex-wives, to become a homicidal Svengali who led a teenage accomplice into mass murder. But it's possible to trace a continuum into ever more hostile, devious and menacing behavior.

Criminal psychiatrists automatically look for severe child abuse or neglect in the case of serial killers. John Williams (he legally changed his name to Muhammad in 2001) grew up without parents. His mother died of cancer when he was 3, and his father seems to have been mostly absent. He was raised by his elderly grandfather and an aunt in a poor neighborhood in East Baton Rouge. But he was a gregarious, happy-go-lucky kid, according to his cousin Charlene. He was part of a brood of youngsters who spent their time climbing trees and digging for crayfish in a nearby canal (and, according to another cousin, breaking into houses for the fun of it).

He had a streak of arrogance and a temper. Enlisting in the National Guard, he was twice court-martialed, once for disobeying an order, the second time for striking a noncommissioned officer. He moved from woman to woman, having one son by a girlfriend and a second son by his first wife. When he moved out with another woman and his marriage broke up in 1985, the divorce was bitter. He tried to stay in his son's life in an occasional but peculiarly heavy-handed way, ordering his ex-wife not to feed their son certain types of food.

He found some kind of order and meaning by becoming a Muslim and joining the U.S. Army. Squared away, physically fit, with a crushing handshake, he was superficially an adequate soldier, serving as a mechanic in a combat engineering brigade. His sergeant, however, says he was "trouble from day one. You'd give him an order and you'd get a certain glare," retired Sgt. Kip Berentson told NEWSWEEK. "He loved being in charge and he had a warped sense of humor." Williams's unit was sent to Operation Desert Storm to clear mines and bulldoze holes in enemy lines. A few nights before the invasion of Iraq, Sergeant Berentson awoke in the early hours to find his tent, with 16 sleeping men inside, on fire. Someone had tossed in a thermite grenade. Berentson, who was fed up with Williams's insubordination, immediately suspected Williams and told the Army's Criminal Investigative Division. Berentson says he last saw Williams being led away in handcuffs. Williams's military records make no mention of the incident; indeed, they suggest Williams had a distinguished gulf-war stint. But Berentson always kept Williams's name and dog-tag number in his wallet. He says he was not surprised to see Williams's face on television. "He was," he added, "a damn good shooter."

Williams, who now called himself Muhammad, left the Army in February 1994. He had trouble coping with civilian life. Manipulative and a bit of a scam artist, he tried various business schemes that fell apart. In Tacoma, Wash., he started a martial-arts school with a man named Felix Strozier under the grand name "Strozier & Muhammad Team of Champions Ltd." Muhammad boasted that he had been in the Special Forces in the Army, which was untrue. When the business collapsed, Muhammad owed Strozier $500, which, according to Strozier, he never repaid. Muhammad's family car-repair business also failed, along with his second marriage.

Muhammad was "extremely verbally abusive" to his wife, Mildred, according to Isa Nichols, a business consultant who worked with Muhammad and his wife. "He shoved her," Nichols said. In her divorce papers, Mildred described Muhammad as a "very irrational man" who regularly threatened to tap her phones and "destroy" her. In March 2000, Muhammad took their three children--and vanished.

He took the kids to Antigua. He told his landlady that he hated the Internet and added, oddly, that he didn't like water's touching his skin. He boasted to an acquaintance that he was a crack shot--that he could kill a man from half a mile away. He tried to raise his children as strict Muslims, but he was unable to support them. By the summer of 2001, he was back in Washington state.

Mildred was so distraught after Muhammad stole their children that she wound up in the hospital suffering from anemia and malnutrition. Nichols took pity and helped her get them back. She gave the authorities Muhammad's license-plate number. The child-welfare authorities found the kids living at a homeless shelter with their father in Bellingham, Wash. The children were taken away and returned to Mildred. Muhammad was furious and humiliated. In February 2002, someone shot and killed 21-year-old Keenya Cook. Cook lived with her aunt Isa Nichols. She had just opened the door when she was shot in the face. The crime was unsolved at the time, but police are investigating whether the bullet was meant for Nichols and fired by a vengeful Muhammad.

Muhammad found, or created, a new son. He apparently first met young John Lee Malvo in Antigua, where the boy was living with his mother. Malvo was a grave young man who responded to Muhammad's self-improvement program, jogging in the mornings, working out, following the dietary rules of Islam. It is not clear exactly how Malvo ended up in Washington state with Muhammad, but his mother, who was living in Florida, bitterly objected and went looking for the boy. She went to the police, who found him staying with Muhammad at the homeless shelter. Police reunited the mother and son, but then she disappeared again. Malvo stayed with Muhammad. The two were seen playing chess together at Stuart's Coffee Shop downtown. Malvo called Muhammad "Dad" and appeared deferential, saying "Yes sir, no sir" in public. The two did not mix with the other regulars, and Muhammad kept a large, military-issue duffel bag by his side at all times, even in the bathroom. Muhammad made a mild pass at the guitar player, Hannah Parks, telling her he was a music agent. He backed off when she asked for his card. She thought he was a "friendly, weird guy. But not dangerous."

Muhammad did ask what she thought about "the whole 9-11 thing," but he was guarded about his own beliefs, Parks told NEWSWEEK. He was less cautious with Harjeet Singh, a buddy who worked out with Muhammad and Malvo at the local YMCA. "They said 9-11 was very good," Singh told NEWSWEEK. "They said it should have been done a long time ago." Muhammad marveled at the damage a relatively small number of terrorists could do, Singh says. "They said 19 people did what a whole army couldn't have done."

According to Singh, Muhammad and Malvo contemplated their own acts of terrorism. "They hate police," said Singh. He claims that Muhammad showed him designs for a silencer that could be attached to a rifle. "They said they were going to shoot a police officer. Then the other police officers and firemen and the mayor would get together for a funeral." Singh told NEWSWEEK that the two men planned to bomb the funeral. "They just wanted to spread fear. They wanted to kill people," said Singh.

Singh said that he was too afraid of Muhammad to go to the police. But when Singh was arrested for domestic violence in June, Singh claims he told the police as well as the FBI about Muhammad's plot. FBI officials confirmed that they had learned of the story about Muhammad and referred it to the ATF (which investigates weapons and explosives crimes). It is not clear what the Feds did with the information, though local police officials are now telling reporters that Singh may be embellishing his story.

Maybe so, but given the carnage allegedly wreaked later by Muhammad and Malvo, perhaps not by much. By June 2002, Muhammad and Malvo had left Washington state and begun to drift eastward. They showed up in Baton Rouge at the end of July, dirty and haggard. Some of Muhammad's cousins thought young Malvo seemed fearful and withdrawn. Looking back, Charlene Anderson can see red flags. When Muhammad took her aside and--pretending to be a Special Forces commando--showed her his rifle, he opened a box of bullets and asked if she knew where he could get more. Anderson, a police officer, wondered, "Doesn't the military give them to him?" She went to work early the next morning. Muhammad slept until early afternoon. "I thought he's supposed to be down here working on this secret mission and he's in bed asleep all day," she recalled. "I feel like he was trying to reach out to me... but I know that I won't ever see him again, unless they're shipping him home in a box to be buried."

Muhammad and Malvo drifted east and north, allegedly ambushing the pair at the Montgomery, Ala., liquor store (Muhammad was apparently the shooter). In New Jersey, Muhammad bought and fitted out his sniper mobile. Before he allegedly began killing, he may have gone to see his three children, who live with Mildred, just outside Washington in Clinton, Md. A neighbor walking his dogs claims to have had a brief conversation with Muhammad. (Mildred is in seclusion.) Did something happen there that drove him over the edge? Did he somehow transfer his rage on the citizenry of greater metropolitan Washington?

II. THE ENDGAME

The call came in to Chief Moose's office at the Montgomery County Police Department on Friday, Oct. 18, two weeks and 11 victims into the sniper nightmare. A public-information officer answered. According to a law-enforcement source, the angry caller said something like, "Do you know who you're dealing with? Don't mess with me." The caller told the Montgomery police to check out a murder-robbery at a liquor store "in Montgomery." Law-enforcement sources offer conflicting accounts about whether the caller specifically said, "Montgomery, Alabama," or just "Montgomery." In retrospect, it is clear that the snipers were showing off. They were pointing police to the shooting of two women at a state liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 21. Ambushed, one woman was shot in the back, the other in the back of the neck. (One died.) The shooter, police now believe, was John Muhammad. The link to the Montgomery, Ala., shooting would prove to be crucial. At the time, however, the hint from the angry caller did not really capture the attention of the sniper task force. The public-information officer who took the call didn't realize he was talking to the sniper. A second call from the same man an hour later was abruptly cut off; apparently, the caller had run out of change at a pay phone.

The investigators were inundated. After a shooting, calls were coming in at the rate of 1,000 an hour. The task-force leaders and their troops--several thousand men and women, some drafted from other government agencies to man the phones 24 hours a day--were exhausted and staggering under the weight of hopes raised and dashed. Top officials muttered about the irresponsibility of the press. They were angry that reporters had let slip that the Pentagon had provided spy planes to track the snipers. "It's a chess move we would rather have made in the dark," one police official said. In the large, cluttered office space in Rockville, Md., that served as a bullpen for all the different investigative agencies, bleary-eyed investigators tracked down tips, mostly nutty or useless, but some that seemed promising and led nowhere.

There was, for instance, the Dentist. He had been fingered by a caller to the tip line, who phoned police to say that he knew of an odd and angry dentist who loved guns. The dentist's home was in what police called "the red zone," the area in Montgomery County where the profilers thought the sniper probably lived. The first time police visited the dentist's house, they heard the double click of a shotgun's being cocked. The next day a victim was gunned down in Fredericksburg, Va., 45 minutes away from the dentist's office. Federal agents returned and found the dentist--with a high-powered rifle, capable of shooting .223 ammunition, in his trunk. Peering through the dentist's office window, they observed a map of the region, with the locations of all the sniper attacks marked with colored pins. The cops got a warrant to seize the gun--but the ballistics didn't match the sniper's bullets. The dentist's alibi was "rock solid," said a frustrated gumshoe.

Then there was the Good Ole Boy. He was another gun-crazed white man with suspicious habits. The police put him under surveillance. One night in the middle of the siege, he was observed shooting pool and drinking beer with his buddies until 2 a.m. "Not serial-killer behavior," the cops concluded.

That week, while detectives futilely chased white vans and trucks by the thousand, the sniper had seemed to go quiet. Then on Saturday night, Oct. 19, he struck again, shooting a traveler as he left the Ponderosa Steak House in Ashland, Va. Alerted by an anonymous call (now believed to be Muhammad), the police found a three-page letter. It was sealed in a sandwich bag, tacked to a tree behind the restaurant. "For you, Mr. Police," it read. "Call --me God." The words matched those written on a tarot card discovered by investigators after the Oct. 7 shooting of the schoolboy. The letter continued, "We have tried to contact you to start a negotiation" and listed a half-dozen attempts to call police or FBI tip lines that were rebuffed as "a hoax or joke." If the authorities wanted to stop the killings, the letter warned, they would place $10 million in the account of a Visa bank card. The letter provided a PIN and an account number for a card that turned out to be stolen. Police were told to stand ready to take a call at a pay phone near the Ponderosa at 6 a.m. that Sunday. The sniper gave the cops until 9 a.m. Monday to deposit the money. The letter writers warned of more "body bags," and added, "P.S., your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

On the sniper's list of foiled attempts to contact the authorities, one in particular stood out. It said, simply, "Priest at Ashland." (Investigators theorize that the shooter called a priest not for forgiveness but to find a go-between.) Around noontime, after Sunday mass, the FBI visited St. Ann's Catholic Church in Ashland. The pastor, Msgr. William Sullivan, told the investigators that he had indeed received a call from a man who reportedly introduced himself, "I am God." According to the priest, the caller complained that the woman at the Home Depot (FBI cyber analyst Linda Franklin, 47, slain on Oct. 14) would not have died if police had not ignored his calls. It took two visits from the FBI to surface the key detail. The caller had instructed the priest to write down a message for police to "look into Montgomery, Alabama." The caller wanted the police to know about the slaying at the liquor store. The call was garbled; the priest had thought he was talking to a crank. But this time round, the reference to Montgomery seized the attention of investigators. "That call did it," said one top law-enforcement official. After two and a half weeks of flailing and false leads, the trail was about to grow warm.

At about 9 that Sunday, Montgomery, Ala., Police Chief John Wilson was just settling down for an evening of football on TV. He had watched the Atlanta Falcons game with a friend and polished off a steak dinner and a glass of wine. The call came from his chief of detectives, Maj. Pat Downing. "You're not going to believe this," said Downing. A detective from the sniper task force in Montgomery County, Md., had called. He told his Alabama counterpart that the sniper task force had received a phone call from a man who claimed to be the sniper. Faced with skepticism, the angry caller had reportedly said, "I know something about a murder-robbery at an ABC liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama, near Ann Street."

Wilson and Downing were surprised. They knew all about the Sept. 21 slaying. A Montgomery cop had chased the killer on foot for a quarter of a mile before he got away (a blue car had pulled out and suddenly cut off the policeman). The case was languishing, unsolved. Could the missing Alabama killer turn out to be the Washington sniper? "It sounded so farfetched and too good to be true," says Wilson. Nonetheless, the Montgomery police turned over a stack of evidence from the shooting to the local FBI office. On Monday afternoon, a Montgomery-based FBI --agent, Margaret Faulkner, flew to Washington with the package.

The most important piece in the pile, it turned out, was the fingerprints pulled off a copy of a gun magazine, an ArmaLite catalog, apparently dropped near the scene of the liquor-store killing. No match had been found in state records. But the fingerprints had never been entered into the federal database (Alabama does not belong to the service that provides it). On Monday night, task-force investigators searched for a match--and found one. The fingerprints belonged to one Lee Malvo, a juvenile who was facing illegal immigration charges in the small town of Bellingham, Wash. He had been reported to the INS after police were called in to deal with a dispute involving the boy's mother and another man. That man's name, it appeared, was John Muhammad. Investigators finally had a name; in fact, two names.

The task force was finally beginning to get somewhere. But there was no eureka moment, say investigators. News of the fingerprint match was not widely shared, and many investigators learned of the breakthrough only from water-cooler gossip. Communication between locals and Feds and rival agencies like the ATF and FBI was erratic. If anything, the gumshoes seemed to be stumbling in the dark. The missed phone calls from the sniper (which the press had found out about) were an embarrassment, however understandable under the stressed circumstances. Because they wanted to be meticulous about handling and preserving evidence, ever so carefully fingerprinting and tagging the plastic sandwich bag tacked to the tree and its contents, investigators had not read the sniper's letter until Sunday morning--after the 6 a.m. time set in the letter for the phone call from the sniper. That is why Chief Moose abruptly went before the cameras on Sunday night to deliver a cryptic message: "To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night, you gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided."

On Monday morning, the shooter called police again. But when the cops traced the call to a phone booth in Richmond, Va., they caught the wrong men: two illegal immigrants who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One was driving a white van. A beleaguered Chief Moose was forced to deliver more mysterious messages: "We are going to respond to a message that we have received. We will respond later. We are preparing that response at this time," the chief announced. Later that afternoon, he begged the callers to try again. "The audio was unclear," he said, "and we want to get it right."

The snipers delivered their response at 5:57 the next morning, Tuesday, Oct. 22. A Montgomery County bus driver was fatally shot as he stood in the vehicle's lit, open doorway, taking a break before beginning his morning run. In the woods, investigators found another letter--again insisting that money be deposited in the bankcard account and threatening the lives of children. (Once again, the investigators read the letter too late to take a scheduled phone call from the snipers.) The snipers demanded that the authorities respond not just with money but also by repeating what appeared to be a cheeky taunt: "We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose." The duck reference is from a folk tale in which a boastful rabbit tries to catch a duck in a noose--only to have the duck fly away, dragging the rabbit, then dropping him inside a tree stump, where the rabbit is trapped.

To the average TV viewer, the investigators were beginning to look like cornered rabbits. But behind the scenes, the FBI thought they might have found a clever ruse to catch the killers. The Feds deposited $100,000 in the bank-card account, NEWSWEEK has learned. The card had been stolen from a woman in Arizona, so the bureau had to go to the bank and ask it to reopen the account and increase the daily withdrawal limit to $1,000. As it turned out, the trap was not sprung because the pair never got the chance to use the card. By Wednesday, the noose was beginning to tighten around the duck's neck in a chokehold that would permit no escape.

In Washington state, the feds were learning some very interesting information about 17-year-old John Lee Malvo and his older friend John Muhammad, 41. The two, who lived together for a time at a homeless shelter, seemed to have a curious bond. Muhammad referred to Malvo as his "stepson," but he was not. At one point, the gumshoes learned, the duo had stayed in Tacoma with Robert Edward Holmes, an old Army buddy of Muhammad's. Holmes told investigators that Muhammad had appeared in the spring of 2002 toting an AR-15, a semiautomatic assault rifle that shoots a .223 round. The gun had a telescopic sight, and Muhammad concealed it in an aluminum case. "Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?" Muhammad had exclaimed, according to Holmes. Neighbors had heard shooting with a high-powered rifle in the backyard. On Wednesday morning, federal investigators began combing the yard with a metal detector, looking for shell casings.

Back at task-force headquarters, the sniper investigation was turning up a lead that was at once embarrassing and promising. The Feds ran a check on Muhammad's license and found, to their astonishment, that he had been discovered by Baltimore police asleep in his car on the night of Oct. 8, about a half-hour's drive from the scene of the shooting the day before at Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md. The Baltimore cops had run a check on the car--a blue 1990 Chevy Caprice--and found nothing amiss. Muhammad had been allowed to go about his business.

Moving quickly now, police traced the registration on the car to Camden, N.J. It turned out that Muhammad had bought the battered clunker with roughly 150,000 miles on it for $250 from the Sure Shot Auto Shop in Camden. (The car's last use: as an undercover vehicle by the cops.) Last week federal agents arrested Nathaniel Osbourne, 26, in Flint, Mich. Osbourne was listed as co-owner of the car with Muhammad. Held as a material witness, he is not a suspect in the shootings, but an FBI spokesman said, "We believe he has valuable information about the sniper case."

Remarkably, law-enforcement sources tell NEWSWEEK, some investigators continued to cling to the belief that the sniper or snipers were driving a white van or truck. Like the talking heads on TV, they had convinced themselves that the snipers must be white men driving a white truck. They had trouble accepting that they should have been looking for two black men driving a blue car. They were fixated on cars fleeing the scene. It does not seem to have really occurred to them that the shooters would hang around--as they almost surely did. As it turned out, a witness had reported seeing a Caprice driving slowly with its lights off near the scene of the Oct. 3 shooting in northeast D.C. But in the dark, the witness remembered the car's color as burgundy, not blue, and the lead was lost in the chatter over white vehicles. A witness outside the Fredericksburg, Va., Michaels craft store, scene of a shooting on Oct. 4, reported a "dark-colored vehicle with New Jersey tags" leaving the scene. A woman calling the tip line on Oct. 7 said she had spotted a black man crouching beneath the dashboard in a dark Chevy Caprice. The woman was struck by the intensity of the man's stare. The agent on the tip line brushed her off. "We're looking for a white truck," she said.

Finally, by Wednesday night, Muhammad and Malvo were at the "top of the list" of suspects, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan told NEWSWEEK. "Wednesday, it kept going back and forth," he said. Doubts remained. The investigators had been burned by false leads before. "I expected calls on at least three other days telling me 'We got him'--and they turned out not to be the ones," said Duncan. There was still the question of how to run down the suspects. SWAT and HRT teams were looking through cheap hotels. D.C. cops were patrolling with the Caprice's New Jersey license-plate number written on Post-It notes stuck on their dashboards. The investigators hotly debated whether to release the suspects' photographs. Some feared that would only tip them off and make them flee. Or worse, provoke them to strike again. Others feared the suspects would be found first by vigilantes. "The concern was that, God forbid, it's not the people [the real snipers] and someone takes matters into their own hands," said Duncan.

The debate raged until almost midnight, when Moose finally emerged to tell reporters that police were on the lookout for Muhammad and Malvo. The investigators did not release the description of the blue 1990 Chevy Caprice or its New Jersey license-plate number, NDA21Z. But reporters with police scanners had already heard the identifying information being relayed to patrol officers in their cruisers.

It was that fortuitous leak that led to the snipers' arrest. At a rest stop off I-70, near the Pennsylvania border, a truckdriver, Ronald Lantz, was listening to his favorite program, "Truckin' Bozo Radio Show," out of WLW-AM in Cincinnati, when he heard the host broadcast a description of the blue Caprice. Lantz looked out his window, and there it was. He immediately called 911. It was 12:54 a.m. At just about the same time, the rest-stop custodian, Larry Blank, was hunkered down in a white van with another man who had spotted the blue Caprice. They, too, dialed 911. After the first police arrived, Lantz and another trucker blocked the rest-stop exits until the SWAT teams came storming in, some two hours later.

Top officials on the sniper task force could hardly believe that the ordeal was over. When he awoke Thursday morning, the first question that popped into County Executive Duncan's head was: "Has anyone gotten shot?" By evening, the state and local law-enforcement chiefs and top federal officials jammed into Chief Moose's office. No one wanted to declare victory until the ATF had made a match between the gun found in the car--a Bushmaster XM-15--and the bullet fragments extracted from 11 of the sniper's victims. They waited and waited, until ATF Special Agent Joe Riehl finally walked into Moose's office at about 8 p.m. and shut the door. Outside, lower-level investigators listened anxiously for some sign. There was silence. Then, at last, the sound of clapping. Moose emerged, looking stern as usual. Duncan teased him, "Can you smile now?" The chief looked up and a huge grin spread across his face.

The suspects were whisked away to an "undisclosed location" and placed in separate interrogation rooms. When prosecutors stepped out for a moment and left Malvo alone, he tried to escape. He somehow broke the table leg to which he had been handcuffed and started climbing up through the ceiling tiles. Pulled back down, he soiled himself, and had to be given a new prisoner's jumpsuit.

The spirit of good cheer on the sniper task force lasted less than a day. By Friday, state and federal prosecutors were bitterly vying for the chance to prosecute Muhammad and Malvo. A meeting between the various agencies and jurisdictions broke down in acrimony. When FBI agents were called on their cell phones and ordered to take the suspects from the interrogation room, task-force cops and prosecutors exploded in anger. Malvo had sat in stony silence, but Muhammad was beginning to answer a few questions. Hoping that he would warm up and begin to spill, agents and officials crowded around closed-circuit monitors to watch the questioning. The Feds insisted that the suspects had to be taken before a federal magistrate and formally charged with a federal crime--or risk having the case thrown out for an illegal arrest. But local officials blamed Thomas Dibiagio, the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, for hogging the limelight and ruining any chance of getting the suspects to talk before they were silenced by defense lawyers. "We may never know why they [Muhammad and Malvo] did what they did because of what Dibiagio did," said an angry local official. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler went ahead and charged the two men with six counts of murder in Maryland. Virginia officials also say they are eager to try the men for murder, and the authorities in Montgomery, Ala., also filed homicide charges. It is unclear how the legal wrangling will sort itself out. If the Feds charge Muhammad with extortion that results in murder (the demand for $10 million, or else), he could get the death penalty. He could also be executed under state law if the Maryland governor, as expected, goes along. Minors generally escape capital punishment, though not in Virginia, and under some circumstance Malvo could be "certified" as an adult.

The trials are sure to be media circuses. The cable-TV experts will come back out to psychoanalyze the defendants, to make some sense out of what they did in the month of October 2002. The prosecutors will try to make Muhammad coldly sane. "He may be talking nonsense, but that doesn't mean he's delusional," says one prosecutor involved in the investigation. Psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a professor at New York University School of Medicine and one of the few talking heads to get it right during the long sniper siege, cautions against expecting clear-cut or rational answers. "You have to suspend logic," she says, when asked questions like why a Muslim killer would turn to a Roman Catholic priest. "We don't know what his underlying fantasy was."

We do know what his overlying reality may have been. It stretched far beyond the corpses and crime scenes and well beyond the Beltway. With one rifle, an old car and a teenage disciple, authorities believe, he brought terror to the nation's capital. For almost three weeks, he kept schoolchildren in a state of "lockdown," a term normally associated with prisons. He forced high-school homecoming games to be played on undisclosed secure military bases. He made children run when they got off the school bus--not to the playground, but for cover. He caused thousands of sad conversations between parents and their children, who were painfully learning to adapt to an age in which everyone, old and young, feels less safe than before.