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Prime suspect in U.S. sniper shootings lived in barely furnished room in Antigua, slept in plastic chair while boasting of being CIA agent and sharpshooter

by Michelle Faul, Associated Press, 26 October 2002


ST. JOHN'S, Antigua - When John Allen Muhammad's life started unraveling, he sought refuge in Antigua, living in a sparsely furnished room while he boasted of being a CIA (news - web sites) agent and sharpshooter who could "take out a man" from a quarter of a mile (hundreds of meters).

The prime suspect in the U.S. sniper shootings that terrorized people in the Washington D.C. area for three weeks also appears to have presented a falsified birth certificate from New Orleans, Louisiana, claiming his mother was from Antigua to get a passport from this former British colony in the Caribbean.

While two former wives fought bitter custody battles with him, in Antigua he was known for taking neighborhood kids for early-morning runs.

To Randy Nelson, the 41-year-old U.S. Army veteran of the Gulf War (news - web sites) was a miracle worker who got his aging pickup truck back on the road and the bearer of gifts like blank CDs and batteries.

"He was a very nice guy around me," Nelson said Friday of his old neighbor.

Still, Nelson said he "shocked but not that surprised" when he heard Muhammad was a suspect in the shootings that left 10 people dead and three wounded.

"The very first time I met him, right here on this porch, he pointed his hand like a gun at a man standing in the windows of the hospital over there and said he could take out a man, could hit anybody, from that range," Nelson said, indicating a building nearly a quarter-mile (hundreds of meters) away.

He said they got talking about guns because Muhammad told him he was in the U.S. Army and had worked with the FBI (news - web sites) and CIA.

Nelson said he wondered about Muhammad's ambition to become a modern Robin Hood: "He said he wanted to take from the rich and give to the poor because the way people were living was unfair." But he never saw Muhammad angry or violent: "He was a very calm man."

The man identified on a Louisiana birth certificate as John Allen Williams was born Dec. 30, 1960. Asked about obvious changes made to the name and birthplace of the mother on the certificate, Antigua's permanent secretary for immigration, Lady Ena Thomas, said the government took it in good faith because it had the seal of New Orleans. A Foreign Ministry letter to the U.S. Embassy on Friday said the passport was issued on grounds of "entitlement by descent."

Muhammad's mother died when he was little and his father was not around, so his grandfather and aunt raised him, according to cousin Edward Holiday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The 6-foot-1 (1.8-meter) Muhammad was a football star who married high school sweetheart Carol Williams in 1982. He enlisted in the Army in 1985, the same year he converted to Islam and changed his name.

He was trained as a mechanic, combat engineer and specialist metal worker. He never received sniper training but qualified as an expert with the M-16. A Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, the civilian version of the M-16, was found when he was arrested Thursday in Fredericksburg, Maryland.

Muhammad was transferred to Germany in 1990, fought in the Gulf War in 1991, returned to the United States in 1992 and got an honorable discharge from the army, as a sergeant, in 1994.

Then his life started unraveling. He and his wife divorced and had a bitter custody battle over their son, now 20, said Williams' sister, Sheron Norman.

An effort to run a karate school in 1997 failed, according to partner Felix Strozier.

He said Muhammad initially wanted him to teach karate to Lee Malvo, the 17-year-old Jamaican arrested with Muhammad. Relatives said Muhammad introduced Malvo as his son, and he apparently treated him as such even after he parted ways with the teen's mother, Una James.

Muhammad first came to Antigua May 20 last year, according to Chief Immigration Officer Col. Clyde Walker. With him were three children from his failed second marriage to Mildred Muhammad, who in court divorce records said their children risked psychological damage because of Muhammad's "abusive use of conflict."

Muhammad apparently absconded with John Jr., 12, Selena, 10, and Taalibah, 9. Also in Antigua were Malvo, who attended the Seventh Day Adventist School, and his mother.

"Those kids loved him," Nelson said of the young children. "When he came to pick them up from school, they would run to meet him and all three would hug him."

He pointed to the drab Greensville Primary School, next door to the wooden home in an unkempt yard where Muhammad rented a room in Ottos neighborhood, on the outskirts of St. John's. Nelson said that when he saw how sparsely the room was furnished, he asked Muhammad where he slept. "He said he usually slept sitting in this plastic chair, and the children shared the little bed."

Greensville principal Janet Harris described Muhammad as "a loving father, very compassionate and genuine."

She could not understand how he could be the sniper who warned "Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time," after shooting a 13-year-old child. The boy survived.

Nelson, who runs a barber shop and helps manage a supermarket, said he worried about Muhammad's income. Muhammad had told him he was getting a job training security guards, and Antiguan officials confirmed he had applied to teach sports at schools.

Instead, Nelson said, Muhammad was an itinerant salesman, buying CDs and batteries on frequent trips to the United States, which he would resell.

Antigua's immigration office had no record of Muhammad's departure. Nelson said he saw him last in March.

Muhammad and Malvo next showed up in Bellingham in the northwestern state of Washington, a quiet town south of the Canadian border, where they lived in a homeless shelter.

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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