On the same September day that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo allegedly killed a liquor store clerk and wounded another in Montgomery, Ala., they struck first in a rough-edged section of Atlanta, authorities said Thursday.
Atlanta police and state and federal investigators said they confirmed that the .22-caliber handgun used in the fatal shooting Sept. 21 in Montgomery was the same one that killed a part-time employee earlier that day at Sam's Package, a liquor outlet near downtown Atlanta.
While the sniper suspects were linked to the Montgomery incident and a separate fatal shooting in Baton Rouge, La., a few days later, the announcement marked the first time that authorities had placed the two men in Georgia. The finding allowed investigators to more tightly trace the pair's path, officials said.
Police said test-firing of the pistol, found last week near where the Montgomery shooting took place, proved that it fired the three shots that killed Million Woldemariam, an Ethiopian immigrant who was helping out at a friend's liquor store in Atlanta after being laid off from his job at a camera store.
Authorities said Woldemariam, 41, died shortly after midnight after being shot three times as he walked out of the store. Nothing was stolen.
About 10 minutes earlier, Woldemariam had noticed a suspicious car in the lot when he stepped out to his car, according to the store owner, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. "I told him, 'Million, if you see a car or somebody outside, don't go outside,' " said the owner, who like Woldemariam had emigrated from Ethiopia. "That was the last conversation I had with him."
The Atlanta crime was viewed as ordinary until authorities linked the Montgomery case to the sniper investigation. A .22-caliber handgun was found near where a Montgomery police officer chased a gunman, now believed to be Muhammad, after the liquor store shooting there. That is a different weapon from the .223-caliber rifle used in the sniper shootings, but officials say Muhammad and Malvo were involved in all the cases.
The Atlanta detective investigating Woldemariam's slaying started checking possible connections to the Alabama shooting, Atlanta Police Chief William Pennington said. The inquiry paid off Thursday when investigators at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms test-fired the Montgomery pistol and a Georgia ballistics technician matched it to the Atlanta shooting.
At Sam's Package, where the front windows wear heavy mesh and the cash register sits behind a thick plate of smudged Plexiglas, a pair of his friends described Woldemariam as kind, a willing worker and a devoted churchgoer who sent money to his mother in Ethiopia. He had come to the U.S. six or seven years ago and was a Canadian national, one friend said.
The store owner said she was "very happy to know who killed [Woldemariam]. But I never expected the sniper."