Expert Links Deadly Bullets to Gun From Sniper Suspect

Times Staff Writer

An assault rifle and a stack of plastic bags filled with shredded bullet fragments were shown Thursday as critical physical evidence against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, as government ballistics experts linked a gun found in his car to 13 serial slayings.

A federal firearms specialist said he was able to definitively single out a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle "to the exclusion of all other firearms" after comparing the weapon to microscopic contours on bullet fragments extracted from the victims.

Holding the Bushmaster aloft and inspecting each bullet shard in front of jurors, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms examiner Walter A. Dandridge explained that the high-powered ammunition streaked into each victim at a velocity of 2,000 mph. The copper impact point of each shell was mangled, but "the base of those bullets were identifiable," Dandridge said.

When Muhammad's defense lawyer Peter D. Greenspun questioned Dandridge's inability to tally all the markings on each fragment, the veteran weapons specialist replied there was a "sufficient duplication of random patterns" to make the individual fragments identifiable.

Then Dandridge melded his clinical expertise with the emotional core of the sniper case, slowly reciting the names of the dead as he tied each killing to single blasts from the high-powered Bushmaster. The markings "were identical from one scene to the next scene to the next scene," Dandridge said.

The rifle was seized from beneath the rear seat of Muhammad's Chevrolet Caprice moments after a heavily armed police team swooped down on the sniper suspect and Lee Boyd Malvo, his teenage companion, just before dawn on Oct. 24, 2002.

Hours after the two men were arrested at a rural Maryland rest stop, Dandridge and other forensics technicians used sensitive microscopes to match up markings found inside the rifle's barrel to bullet fragments recovered from almost every crime scene. Those connections allowed police to charge the two in the spate of sniper killings that had terrorized the Washington area for nearly a month.

After three weeks of testimony, the prosecution is winding down its case against Muhammad in the slaying of Dean H. Meyers, a 53-year-old Maryland engineer who was shot to death at a gas station in Manassas, Va. Muhammad faces the death penalty under two Virginia statutes: One accuses him of a terrorist act by inflaming public fears; a second charges him with committing more than one homicide in a three-year period.

Virginia prosecutors have used evidence from 10 sniper killings in the Washington area and three slayings in the Deep South to show that the Meyers' killing was part of a shooting rampage designed by Muhammad to stoke panic and extort $10 million from the government. Despite three ransom notes, police never delivered any money.

Malvo, 18, is set to stand trial next week under a separate sniper slaying charge. His lawyers have indicated the teenager will plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

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