Opening Shot

Her efforts to dodge an abusive boyfriend put Keenya Cook in line for murder. Last winter, Cook was a 21-year-old Tacoma, Wash., woman living with her 6-month-old baby at Cook's aunt's home. The house on East 34th Street was supposed to be a safe haven from a violent boyfriend. But on the night of Feb. 16, Cook was home alone, changing the baby's diaper when the front doorbell rang. When she opened the door, Cook was shot in the face with a .45 -caliber slug, and died instantly. In the weeks that followed, Tacoma police scrambled to find the killer, but it wasn't until John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were arrested that cops got a break.

Now, the two alleged Washington snipers have been linked to the gun that killed Cook. The apparent link between Muhammad, Malvo and the Cook murder is a .45-caliber handgun. "We now consider John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo suspects in the Keenya Cook homicide," Tacoma police chief David Brame said last night. If true, that makes Keenya Cook the alleged snipers' first victim.

Muhammad and Malvo may be safely behind bars, but cops and prosecutors all over the country are still scrambling. Weeks from now, they'll still be gathering evidence and filing charges in what now looks like a grim coast-to-coast crime spree that culminated in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper killings that left 10 dead and three wounded. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Maryland filed a 20 count complaint against Muhammad, alleging that he discharged a firearm in seven of the sniper murders while trying to carry out an extortion scheme. The charges, which carry the death penalty, could not be levied against Malvo because, at 17, he's still a juvenile and immune from execution. Prosecutors in Maryland and Virginia have already filed murder charges against both men. And last week, Alabama district attorneys filed murder charges against both suspects for the September liquor store robbery and murder in Montgomery.

Authorities suspect anger over a long divorce and custody battle was what allegedly helped set Muhammad off on his killing spree. In Tacoma, law-enforcement officials suspect that anger may also be the key to Keenya Cook's murder. The aunt who offered Cook refuge was Isa Nichols, a business consultant who helped set up Muhammad's Express Car/Truck Mechanic Service business in the middle 1990s and remained a family friend. More importantly, Nichols had sided with Muhammad's ex-wife, Mildred, in a bitter divorce fight that started in late 1999. On March 27, 2000, Muhammad abruptly disappeared for 18 months with the couple's three children, first to Antigua for a year before returning quietly to Washington State in mid-2001.

When he got back, Nichols told NEWSWEEK, Muhammad wanted to see his ex-wife. He asked Nichols to help him. Nichols delivered a message to Muhammad: Mildred wanted first to see her children, whom he was shielding at an undisclosed location. "He said, 'She has to talk to me first'," Nichols told NEWSWEEK. The arrangement was never made. But Nichols copied down the license plate of the car Muhammad drove, and she turned it over to authorities looking for the children. Using that information, authorities finally caught up to him in Bellingham, Wash in August, 2001 and returned the children to Mildred. Police now think that may have been the motive for murder. "We know there was bad blood," Tacoma police spokesman Jim Mattheis told NEWSWEEK. "We know he had the motive and the opportunity and the means."

The link between Muhammad, Malvo and the Cook murder is a .45-caliber handgun. It belongs to a Tacoma gun enthusiast who loaned the gun to the two men when they were staying with him last winter. The unnamed man called police last Thursday to report that he knew the men just arrested as the Washington snipers, reporting that they had occasionally stayed with him last winter, and more or less moved in between May and July. The man, whom police say is being "very cooperative" and is not a suspect in any of the crimes, also told police he'd loaned the .45 and a .44-caliber handgun to his two guests for what he thought was target practice. But when the Washington state crime lab tested the gun over the weekend, it matched the bullet that killed Keenya Cook. Police say they aren't at all sure whether the killer mistook Cook for Nichols or simply killed the niece to get back at her aunt.

Police and prosecutors have a lot more to do tying the Cook murder to the men. Prosecutors in Tacoma say they found a tiny bit of DNA on the shell casing found near Cook's body, and they may send it out to see whether it matches DNA samples from either suspect. They've also examining a second gun the men may have borrowed. Over the weekend, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tested the .44 caliber handgun that the Tacoma man said he'd loaned Muhammad to see if it matched slugs found at Tacoma's only synagogue, the Temple Beth-El. The temple had been vandalized in early May by gunfire. No one was hurt and the investigation had gone cold until last week when after watching sniper coverage on television, Rabbi Mark S. Glickman phoned police to suggest that maybe Muhammad, a member of the Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam during the 1990s, might have done it. Rabbi Glickman was apologetic with police at first, thinking the possibility "was a long shot." But as cops around the country push to understand everything that Malvo and Muhammad did, there may be more long shots to come.