Detectives begin thorough search of suspect's car

The car that investigators have portrayed as a killing machine used by the Washington-area snipers is getting its first thorough examination by detectives looking for clues that would explain how the men were able to roam the region and kill so many without detection.

Among the items in the cluttered Chevrolet Caprice that will draw the most attention from police: a laptop computer, walkie-talkies and possible gunshot residue in a rifle port drilled in the trunk, law enforcement officials told The Sun.

Authorities said they waited until yesterday to begin a thorough examination of the 1990 Caprice to ensure that investigators were well-rested and did not overlook any potential evidence. The two men suspected in the shootings - John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 - have been charged with murder in the attacks and are being held without bail.

Investigators are hoping that significant information may come from Muhammad's $2,000 laptop computer, which at least one witness saw him using late into the night while sitting in the car. Computers are often treasure troves of information in criminal cases because they can contain a suspect's most intimate musings, e-mail messages and logs of Internet sites.

"If you seize a computer, you will get everything about" a suspect, said one law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You are able to track locations where people have been. You can go back and reconstruct Web sites people have visited."

Some investigators have speculated that Muhammad might have used the laptop to follow the news on the Internet. The laptop is one of two items that Muhammad declared as assets in a federal affidavit last week; his other possession was the Caprice, which he valued at $600.

The discovery of the walkie-talkies suggests that the attacks were carefully coordinated, allowing close communication during the incidents, sources said.

Another key clue is a hole drilled in the trunk near a key hole and stuffed with a glove, and the trace amounts of gunshot residue it might contain. Such a discovery would cement the theory that the men fired from the car during several attacks, investigators said.

In other shootings, one of the men likely concealed himself in woods or bushes to shoot his victims, while his accomplice drove inconspicuously nearby, waiting to pick up the sniper and quickly flee police dragnets. Walkie-talkies would have aided their escapes by providing quick communication.

The car has already revealed its most important clue - a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that has been linked to 11 of 14 shootings that started Oct. 2.

As prosecutors in three states and the federal government wrangle over control of the case and who will try the suspects in a trial sure to attract global attention, the detectives' tracing of the murderous rampage has taken on enormous significance. Still unanswered is the motive behind the random killings, and how Muhammad and Malvo met and allegedly began devising their plot.

Along with the equipment Malvo and Muhammad used, investigators are searching for a motive in their relationship and their pasts. In the months before the attacks, they were down on their luck, according to court documents and those who knew the pair.

The two have been living a seemingly endless trail of short-term experiences, from the cheap housing around the docks in the Caribbean island of Antigua where they met to the homeless shelters in the Tacoma, Wash., area where they pretended to be father and son.

When Muhammad returned to his home in Baton Rouge, La., this summer, his clothes were so shabby and his stomach empty, that relatives hardly recognized him. The man who had always effortlessly acquired cars, women and money now had none.

"I thought he was hitting hard times," said Muhammad's cousin Edward Holiday, who grew up with him in the tough section of north Baton Rouge called the Avenues. "Something was wrong."

Muhammad's mood in the months before the attacks seems to have varied, according to many who became acquainted with him. At times, he appeared upbeat; other times, angry and menacing; and at least once, he expressed bitterness about his country, going so far as to say he sympathized with terrorist attackers who hijacked planes Sept. 11.

But John Mills, a lawyer who tried to help Muhammad find his former wife when she fled the Tacoma area with their children last year, said Muhammad showed no signs of being an Islamic extremist. He also said he never heard Muhammad speak approvingly of terrorist attacks.

"That's total hogwash. He wasn't some religious nut," said Mills.

Mills said that he had several conversations with Muhammad right after the Sept. 11 hijackings and that Muhammad never expressed any support for the attackers. He also said Muhammad didn't express anti-American sentiments or seem obsessed with the incidents.

"He was in every respect a normal, respectful guy, who didn't understand why the courts were doing what they did. But he was willing to work within the system," Mills said.

Mills said he lost contact with Muhammad about 10 months ago, but his domestic problems may have initiated a downward spiral.

"It's these kinds of cases that have the most emotional toll on people," he said.

Muhammad lived in several homeless missions in recent years, although occasionally he found shelter with people he befriended.

One of those people was Mark Thomas, 25, a former student at Western Washington University from Chandler, Ariz., who met Muhammad last year at the YMCA in Bellingham, Wash.

They began training and jogging together, became good friends, saw each other several times for about year and at one point in April or May of this year, Thomas invited Muhammad and Malvo to stay at his house.

Thomas said Muhammad bought him gifts, including a package of smoked salmon and a pocket electronic organizer because he felt Thomas needed to be better organized. Muhammad always appeared "upbeat," Thomas said.

Muhammad and Malvo stayed for several days, sleeping on futons in the living room, Thomas said. They stayed up late watching movies, told everyone they were father and son, and being vegetarians, they ate mostly honey and salad.

Thomas said they became close enough that when Thomas said he was interested in buying a Mustang in Tacoma, Muhammad and Malvo rode with him for the two-hour trip to check out the car.

Thomas said they got along well because they shared an interest in car mechanics and fitness.

"He was my buddy," said Thomas.

He said he and Muhammad did high-intensity calisthenics at the gym, and Muhammad's cardiovascular endurance and physical strength were "remarkable." Thomas said Muhammad never said anything anti-American, never talked about guns and carried a duffel bag with him most places.

At one point, Muhammad said he was looking for a long piece of lightweight, heavy-gauge metal, fashioned in the form of a pipe.

Thomas said he is unsure what Muhammad planned to do with the metal. They never discussed it, he said.

Sun staff writers Dennis O'Brien and Michael Stroh contributed to this article.