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D.C. sniper suspect a `screwball' in Army

by Frank Main, Chicago Sun-Times, 31 October 2002


Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad exploded a grenade in an Army tent during his military service in Saudi Arabia and earlier stole an M-16 rifle on a base in Germany, according to a commanding officer who now lives in north suburban Lincolnshire.

"He was a screwball then and a screwball now," said former Capt. Rick Martin, the executive officer of the 84th Engineer Company in the early 1990s when the alleged incidents occurred. "He was not a good soldier. On a scale of one to 10, he was a three at best."

Martin, a salesman for Explicit Marketing, said the rifle incident occurred in 1990 after the 200-member unit returned from a live-fire exercise in Grafenwohr, Germany, to its base about 15 miles away in Bayreuth.

Martin was responsible for the convoy, and Muhammad -- who used the surname Williams at the time -- was a sergeant in charge of about three other soldiers in his section.

Muhammad, now 41, and the soldiers under his leadership were assigned to clean the unit's M-16 rifles and other weapons.

One of the weapons disappeared during the cleanup, and commanders were immediately notified, Martin said. The base was locked down and soldiers were interviewed.

"You don't lose a weapon in the Army. . . . This was a big deal," Martin said.

Muhammad led a search of a dormitory and located the weapon in exposed insulation on the third floor, Martin said.

Investigators grew suspicious and interviewed Muhammad -- whose stuttering grew worse under questioning, Martin said. He admitted he hid the weapon, apparently to get another soldier in trouble, Martin said.

Muhammad faced a hearing, but he was not demoted, Martin said, adding that he was not sure whether any discipline was meted out.

Muhammad was transferred to a support unit about 70 miles away in Nuremberg, where he worked as a truck mechanic, Martin said.

Still, Muhammad had valuable weapons skills and was reassigned to the 84th Engineer Company when it deployed to Saudi Arabia before the Gulf War, Martin said.

The unit was responsible for removing enemy obstacles and clearing mine fields.

Muhammad seemed to struggle with the complexities of land mines, Martin said. He was not trained as a sniper but did receive a Marksmanship Badge with an expert rating in the use of an M-16 rifle.

"He was physically fit, but I don't think he was respected in the unit," Martin said. "He had a chip on his shoulder. People didn't want to have anything to do with the guy."

Martin thinks a grudge that Muhammad held against another soldier led to his pulling the pin on an incendiary grenade in an Army tent near the Iraq border in January 1991.

"Someone yelled, `Fire!' and his platoon scattered out of the tent," Martin said. No one was injured in the blast.

Martin said investigators found the grenade pin near Muhammad's bunk and determined the grenade exploded on the other side of the tent. They interviewed Muhammad, and he was arrested, Martin said. He said he does not know what happened to Muhammad.

Records show Muhammad entered the Louisiana National Guard in the late 1970s and was disciplined for striking an officer and demoted from sergeant to specialist. He entered the regular Army in 1985 and left active duty in 1994 with an honorable discharge.

3rd gunman in Alabama?

In a new development, police told the Washington Post that ballistics linked the rifle used in the spree to the Alabama killing that led investigators to the suspects.

Since witnesses in that slaying said Muhammad and John Lee Malvo only had a handgun, the rifle revelation suggests a third person could have been involved.

The case is "frustrating," Montgomery, Ala., Police Chief John H. Wilson told the Post. "Just at the time you figure it out, it grows another leg," he said.

Copyright © 2002 Digital Chicago Inc.
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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