Snipers’ Motives Start to Emerge

Times Staff Writers

When John Allen Muhammad was convicted last month, it still wasn’t clear what had turned a seemingly ordinary pair into a sniper team who, authorities say, staged 20 shootings across seven states, killing 15 people and wounding seven. “We don’t know what made them take the final leap,” a member of the prosecution team said.

But in the last week, with confessed accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo’s trial here nearing its final phase, a clearer picture of the itinerant gunmen has emerged -- along with a possible motive laid out by Malvo.

The “mission,” said one of the many mental-health experts who have conducted jailhouse interviews with Malvo, 18, was to incite a racial revolution over the “continued oppression of black people” and to set up a utopian black colony in Canada based on racial and social justice.


In August 2002, psychiatrist Dewey Cornell testified, Muhammad reportedly told Malvo that “they were going to carry out a sniper plan, to start shooting people one after the other.” No court testimony indicated why Muhammad or Malvo thought such attacks would spark a revolution.

In the months preceding Muhammad’s comment, various defense witnesses said the 42-year-old Army veteran had indoctrinated Malvo into sharing his rage over white American society. He had taken the teenager on trips across the country to speak with blacks in slums and homeless shelters. He had Malvo listen to tapes of anti-American speeches, using headphones to deliver the message even while the teenager slept.

Malvo has said, according to court testimony, that he was put through rigorous training: Muhammad reportedly taught him how to shoot, gave him violent video games to play, lectured him on Islam, put him on a strict vegetarian diet laced with vitamin pills and globs of honey, and once tied him to a tree so the youth could prove his toughness.

In the end, mental-health experts for the defense said, Muhammad owned Malvo’s mind.

Dewey, who spent 54 hours interviewing Malvo, said the teen told him that “white people are devils.” Malvo, he added, “came to believe there would be a revolution.”

From the time of their chance meeting in an electronics shop on the Caribbean island of Antigua in late 2000, Muhammad and Malvo made an odd pair. Muhammad stood 6 feet 1. He was a handsome man who had a military bearing and hardly an ounce of fat on his 180-pound body. Malvo weighed 120 pounds, appeared younger than his 15 years and looked as though he belonged in a schoolboy choir. Muhammad was stoic, Malvo outgoing.

They did, however, share one significant quality: They were losers.

Muhammad’s two marriages had failed, his Washington state auto-repair business had fallen apart, he had lost custody of his four children and, in 10 years in the Army and National Guard, he had not risen above the rank of sergeant. He rebelled against authority, sometimes being disciplined by the Army; during the course of his military career, Muhammad went from getting the top marksman ratings for his shooting ability to the lowest.


In the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Muhammad was assigned to an engineering unit but told people he was with Special Forces. He was suspected of tossing an incendiary grenade into the tent of a sergeant he didn’t like, military records entered as evidence showed, and once told another African American soldier in a counseling session: “Brother to brother, back off or you will be the first slaughtered. There is no place that your family will be safe.”

And Malvo, while a decent student in Antigua and his native Jamaica who talked of becoming a pilot or an astronaut, was by all accounts a troubled teenager. He shot stray cats with a slingshot, was abandoned by his father, beaten by his mother and bounced from home to home and school to school.

“I woke him up,” Malvo’s mother, Una James, testified about one of the times she left to find work on another island. “He gave me a hug and said: ‘Mommy, I’m not crying because you’re going back to look for your life. I’m not going to cry. I just wish you luck and prosperity.’ ”

Two months before the Washington-area sniper attacks, Malvo wrote to a friend: “I ... tried to be a friend, a brother, a lover, a man and yes I’ve always failed. I have tried to treat women the way they should be treated, like the queens they are.... I play, joke, be stern, be appreciative, but I receive the opposite in return.”

Muhammad had become Malvo’s surrogate father by the time the two settled into a Bellingham, Wash., homeless shelter in the fall of 2001. Friends said Muhammad was still numb that a Tacoma judge the month before had taken away his visitation rights. “So, I can’t see my children?” was all a stunned Muhammad said when the judge rendered his decision. He repeated it twice.

Al Archer, executive director of the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham, said Malvo tried hard to please Muhammad, who had “a personality that will draw people to him. He was not being ... mean, not anything like that. It was a winning way he had of drawing Lee into his way of thinking.”


But Archer testified that he was suspicious of Muhammad. Everyone else in the shelter had expressed shock and grief in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States; Muhammad never spoke of them. While most at the shelter were broke, Muhammad always had money and received calls from travel agents. Archer said he thought Muhammad might be a drug dealer or terrorist.

By the time Muhammad and Malvo reached the Washington, D.C., area in autumn 2002, their wallets were stuffed with the proceeds of a series of petty robberies, authorities said. They had walkie-talkies, binoculars, a stolen laptop computer, a global positioning device, detailed street maps and a .232-caliber Bushmaster -- a semiautomatic rifle normally used for target practice or hunting small game. Their battered 1990 Chevrolet Caprice had a hole in the trunk that police said provided an excellent portal for a sniper’s rifle.

Ten people died in Washington, Maryland and Virginia between sunset Oct. 2 and sunrise Oct. 22, 2002, in the spree of random attacks. One man was shot while mowing a lawn, another pumping gas. A woman was killed while vacuuming her minivan. The victims included immigrants from Haiti and India, an African American and a 13-year-old boy headed to school. The attacks so terrorized the region that events were canceled and schoolchildren were kept inside.

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested at 3:30 a.m. Oct. 24, 2002, at a Maryland rest stop off Interstate 70. Asked by investigators why he thought they were captured, Malvo replied, “My laziness, my lack of discipline.” He said he had been assigned lookout duty but had fallen asleep.

At the opening of his capital murder trial in October, Muhammad broke a year of near-silence -- he had refused to meet with court-appointed psychiatrists -- and decided to act as his own attorney. He delivered a rambling opening argument about truth and wisdom, asking an expert witness for the prosecution, “Does fingerprints get old?” and unwittingly placed himself at the crime scenes, reminding jurors that only he had the capacity to describe his thoughts and motives.

“They [the prosecutors] wasn’t there,” he said. “I was, and I know what happened, and I know what didn’t happen.”


After two days, Muhammad yielded to his court-appointed attorneys. For the next month he remained silent. When the guilty verdict was read, two jurors held hands, two others wept. Muhammad never winced.

In jail, Malvo at first responded to investigators’ questions by drawing two fingers across his mouth, as though he were zipping his lips. But soon he began talking, seeing a parade of mental-health experts and confessing to lawmen that he was the triggerman in all the Washington-area killings. He giggled during taped interviews while describing some of the attacks.

Malvo, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, was under Muhammad’s control, his lawyers say. The teenager has told psychologists that his original jailhouse confessions were false, and that his intention was to protect Muhammad, whom he called “sir” but referred to as his father. He told doctors he expects to be executed -- and doesn’t really care.

“I studied and read, but instead of gaining wisdom, I am still yet a fool, playing smart,” he wrote his friend last year.