Bonded in Blood

updated 11/11/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

On the surface, at least, it appeared that all John Allen Muhammad really wanted in life was to regain custody of his three children. The odd part, says John Mills, the Tacoma, Wash., lawyer who counseled Muhammad late last year, was that in contrast to many fathers on a similar mission, his client didn't seem to harbor any real rage when it came to his ex-wife Mildred, who had spirited the kids away in a long-running legal dispute. "I see a fair amount of crazies in this business and the 'I'll kill her' stuff," says Mills. "He wasn't in that boat at all." Still, Muhammad, 41, impressed Mills as a man desperate to restore the family life he felt had been taken from him.

As it happened, 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo was on a search of his own—in his case for an authority figure to stand in for the mother and father who had often been absent from his life. That Muhammad and Malvo found each other was a matter of chance. That they would form their own little twisted family unit and allegedly kill 10 people on a three-week rampage as the Beltway snipers looks more and more to be a matter of bad chemistry. "Sometimes it's easier to do something terrible," says noted criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, "when you have someone else there to participate."

Muhammad's early life offers little hint of the trouble to come. Born John Allen Williams to a blue-collar family in Baton Rouge, he suffered the death of his mother, Myrtis, from breast cancer when he was 4 and virtual abandonment by his father, James, a railroad worker. But he was raised by a loving aunt, Annie Holiday Jackson, in a tidy, stable home in Baton Rouge, where he seemed to thrive. "He was very outgoing," says Jackson. "He had a smile always." After high school he married Carol Kaglear, with whom he had a son, Lindbergh, now 20, and joined the Louisiana National Guard.

It is clear, though, that for much of his adult life Muhammad had an unnatural need for control. After his stint in the Guard, he joined the regular Army and served as a sergeant in the Gulf War. As a member of an engineering battalion he earned a reputation as a fine marksman—and a guy who bridled at taking orders. Retiring from the service in 1994 and settling in Tacoma with second wife Mildred (he and Carol divorced in 1988), he displayed a chillingly strict streak with her and their three children John Jr., now 12, Salena, 10, and Taalibah, 9. "He was loud and demanding," says Frank Cruz, 31, a neighbor at the time. "You could tell the family was battered. When he yelled, they jumped."

The problem was that Muhammad, who joined the Nation of Islam in 1985 and legally changed his name from Williams last year, had trouble keeping control of his life. Though he was well-spoken, professional and a first-rate mechanic, nothing seemed to work for him. The auto-repair shop he started in Tacoma flourished at first, then faltered under the weight of other business deals gone sour. "I remember him being bitter about life," says Felix Strozier, who went into partnership with Muhammad on another venture that went bust, this one a martial-arts studio in Tacoma. "He wanted to be successful, and it was hard for him not to be."

But his greatest source of frustration was the dissolution of his marriage to Mildred. His calm demeanor with his lawyer Mills notwithstanding, Muhammad terrified Mildred with his threats of violence. In one court filing she said she feared for her life. He abducted the three children in March 2000, hiding them for 18 months on the Caribbean island of Antigua and in Bellingham, Wash., before authorities were able to return them to their mother, who promptly fled East with them.

Within a month of losing the kids, Muhammad turned up in Bellingham with Malvo in tow. They called each other "father" and "son." In fact Malvo was the son of Una James, a Jamaican woman Muhammad had met and dated while on Antigua. Like him, young Malvo had grown up largely without his parents. His father, Leslie Malvo, 54, a mason in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, had little contact with his son, while his mother essentially left him in the care of relatives and others as she worked various jobs. "He was pretty much an orphan, fending for himself," says Donavan Johnson, who taught Malvo geography at York Castle High School in Jamaica. Bright, well-mannered and personable, Malvo showed great promise—and an even greater desire to please. "He would eat whatever you gave him, but he was not forward enough to ask for more," says Winsome Maxwell, who also taught Malvo at York Castle and even took him in for several months in the ninth grade. "He was just so happy for what he got."

Authorities suspect that Muhammad helped James and Malvo enter the United States illegally some time before August 2001. He became the young man's surrogate parent and quickly began molding him in his own image. A fitness buff, Muhammad put Malvo on a diet of honey and crackers, along with a regimen of exercise. In Bellingham, where they lived off and on in the Lighthouse Mission homeless shelter at the end of last year, the pair spent many hours deep in conversation or playing chess. Malvo seemed happy enough to be with Muhammad. But there was a dark side to their relationship that did not go unnoticed. "One time I saw Malvo talking to another guy, and John gave him this glance and Malvo just shut up all of the sudden," says Rory Reublin, the resident manager of the Lighthouse Mission. "Malvo seemed real controlled."

Muhammad, apparently, soon began to behave even more erratically. Always given to tall tales, he told friends and family at various times that he was with the CIA, the FBI and the Army Special Forces. A neat dresser, he arrived in Baton Rouge with Malvo for a visit in July looking disheveled and confiding to one disbelieving acquaintance that he was a Special Ops commando. He had also taken to flashing big wads of money. Authorities are now looking into the possibility that he pulled armed robberies in Washington State to support himself. It also appears likely that his rampage started earlier than at first thought. Investigators in Tacoma have now linked Muhammad to a shooting at a local synagogue in early May in which no one was hurt. Perhaps more telling, they have also linked him to the murder of 21-year-old Keenya Cook, who was shot in the face when she opened her door in Tacoma Feb. 16. At the time Cook was living with Isa Nichols, the former bookkeeper for Muhammad's auto-repair business, who had strongly sided with Mildred in the divorce—and who may have been the real target. Indeed, at least one of Mildred's relatives, her brother Charlie Green, 40, a long-haul trucker, is convinced that the Beltway killings were meant to terrorize—and perhaps target—Mildred and her kids, who were living incognito in suburban Washington, D.C. "He did it because he wanted to kill my sister, and he wanted to kill the kids," Green told Tacoma's News Tribune. "He was stalking them the whole time."

This theory may or may not be confirmed at the series of trials now facing Muhammad and Malvo, who is believed to have been the triggerman in at least one of the killings. While being questioned in Montgomery County the handcuffed Malvo attempted to escape through ceiling tiles when left alone and then soiled himself when his minder returned and hauled him down. Other than that, he and his erstwhile "father" spend their days in solitary confinement at Maryland's SuperMax prison in 7-by-10-ft. cells, visited by court-appointed lawyers—with no contact at all allowed between them. Finally, they are the ones at the mercy of others.

Bill Hewitt
Lyndon Stambler and Cynthia Flash in Tacoma, Gabrielle Cosgriff in Baton Rouge, Linda Trischitta in Kingston and the Washington, D.C, bureau

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