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Sniper rifle found in marksman’s car

Washington, Oct. 25 (Reuters): Suburban sniper suspects John Allen Muhammed and his teen-age companion were in custody and a rifle found in their car was confirmed as the weapon that killed 10 people in and around Washington DC, law enforcement officials said.

Police, who had filed only a gun violation charge against Muhammed, said tonight they would be charged with murder and that the two could face the death penalty.

The arrests marked a welcome turning point in a three-week siege that turned schools into fortresses and made even the simplest suburban errand seem hazardous.

Today, children played in school yards for the first time in weeks after a pall of fear lifted from the Washington suburbs with the arrest of two suspects.

At Westbrook Elementary School in the tranquil suburb of Bethesda, parents and teachers expressed relief that children’s lives could go back to normal and that they would no longer be cooped up inside for fear of the marauding sniper.

Muhammad and his teenage companion were arrested early yesterday after they were discovered sleeping in their car at a Maryland highway rest stop. Montgomery county police chief Charles Moose did not name the younger suspect, but he was identified by law enforcement sources as John Lee Malvo, 17.

A Bushmaster XM-15 .223 caliber rifle found in the car was “forensically determined to be the murder weapon involved in the shootings”, said Michael Bouchard of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“We have the weapon; it is off the street,” Moose said. “We have not completed all of our work. Anything remains possible. We continue to look at every angle, every possibility. But we feel very positive about where we are right now.”

President George W. Bush called Moose from Texas to congratulate him and others who worked on the case. “You have lifted a shadow of fear from many families,” he said.

Muhammad and Malvo both appeared in federal court in Baltimore late yesterday.

Malvo’s hearing was closed because he is under 18, but Muhammad appeared in open court in a dark green prison uniform and answered clearly when asked by US magistrate Beth Gesner if he knew why he was there. “I know where I’m at,” the former army marksman said. “I know why I’m here.”

Wife tormentor

Muhammed is an expert marksman and longtime convert to Islam who terrified his estranged wife.

Friends and family said the tall, 41-year-old Muhammad converted to Islam about 17 years ago and joined the army, moving to Washington state and serving in the Gulf War.

He reportedly changed his name from John Allen Williams about a year ago.

Malvo was first thought to be the twice-divorced Muhammed’s stepson but the police later said the relationship was unclear.

Court and public records painted a picture of a controlling, irrational Muhammed who twice abducted his own children.

Muhammed, a father of four, was served with a restraining order during a bitter 2000 divorce and custody battle with his second wife, Mildred, in the industrial city of Tacoma, Washington. In the court papers, she accused Muhammad of threatening her life and of abducting their three children.

“I am afraid of John. He was a demolition expert in the military. He is behaving very, very irrational. Whenever he does talk with me, he always says that he's going to destroy my life,” she said.

Muhammed’s first wife, Carol, told the Seattle Times that she, too, had to go to court to get their son back after the boy visited his father in Washington state a few years ago.

She said Muhammed had converted to Islam after their divorce about 17 years ago, at about the same time he joined the army.

“After he changed his religion, he called me and told me what not to feed my child,” she told the newspaper. “I told him as long as he (their son) lived with me, it was up to me,” Carol said.

Public records show Muhammed living the life of a drifter in recent years with addresses as far distant as Tacoma and Louisiana. Four years ago, he went into business running a Tacoma karate school with businessman Felix Strozier who described him in media interviews as “a pretty nice person.”

A year ago, he was running a car and truck mechanic business in Tacoma, drawing on his army experience as a combat engineer and a mechanic. Public records showed that his most recent address was in Clinton, Maryland — the heart of the recent shootings. One fellow soldier described Muhammed as “clean-cut” and “very competitive”.

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