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Muhammad a Gulf War vet, Islam convert

Family, friends say they're baffled by allegations

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CNN's Kelli Arena examines the possible motivations of sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.
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  • 41 years old
  • Gulf War veteran
  • Twice divorced
  • Father of four children
  • Converted to Islam 17 years ago
  • (CNN) -- John Allen Muhammad, one of two people charged in the Washington area sniper attacks, is a twice-divorced, 41-year-old Gulf War veteran who converted to Islam 17 years ago and earned an expert marksmanship badge in the U.S. Army.

    Family members said they are baffled and some a little unnerved that someone they knew could have committed the acts police allege Muhammad and John Lee Malvo committed, that they could be responsible for 13 sniper shootings -- 10 of them fatal -- in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

    "I can't imagine what would have gone on in his life that would make John even think about doing this, if he's the one," said Yvonne Crawford, Muhammad's aunt who knew him as John Williams as a boy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

    Sheron Norman, the sister of Muhammad's first wife, said that although her former brother-in-law has "done some things to my family," she's still "just hoping that this is something that he didn't do."

    "You have those in-laws," she said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "Sometimes you have to put up with them."

    A Louisiana native

    The 6-foot-1-inch Muhammad, also known as John Allen Williams, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 31, 1960, to Ernest Edward Williams and Eva Ferris, an Antiguan by birth. He grew up in Baton Rouge and married Carol Williams in 1981. The couple had one son but divorced in 1985, and Williams got custody of their son, Travis.

    His conversion from a Baptist to a Muslim occurred around this time, but Muhammad only legally changed his name from Williams last year. He is a member of the Nation of Islam.

    Muhammad also served in the Louisiana National Guard from 1978 to 1985 and in the Oregon National Guard in 1994 and 1995. His military record shows that he received a court-martial from the Louisiana National Guard.

    It is unclear if the active duty recruiter knew about his Louisiana record when Muhammad enlisted in 1985, but it would not have necessarily kept him out of the Army in the 1980s, officials said.

    He was first stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, about 15 miles from Tacoma. He went to Germany in 1990 and served in the Persian Gulf War. He then was sent to the now-closed Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. He returned to Fort Lewis in 1993 and was honorably discharged in 1994 as a sergeant and moved to Tacoma.

    Before his arrest, authorities searched a duplex in Tacoma where Muhammad once lived along with the 17-year-old Malvo.

    In the Army, Muhammad was trained as a mechanic, truck driver and specialist metalworker. He qualified as an expert with the M-16, the Army's standard infantry rifle. The rating is the Army's highest of three levels of marksmanship for a typical soldier.

    To receive an expert badge for the M-16, Muhammad would have had to hit 36 out of 40 targets, ranging from 50 to 300 meters during his yearly qualification on the M-16.

    A Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle was found in suspects' car, and authorities said ballistic tests showed it was the same gun used in the sniper shootings. The Bushmaster is a civilian version of the M-16. All the sniper victims -- 10 dead, three wounded since October 2 -- were hit by a single .223-caliber shot.

    Accusations of domestic violence

    After his discharge, Muhammad moved to Tacoma with his second wife, Mildred Green, whom he had married in 1988 at Fort Lewis. The couple had three children, John Jr., Salena and Taalibah, and operated a car mechanic business in Tacoma.

    Felix Strozier, who ran a martial arts school with Muhammad in Tacoma several years ago, said Muhammad "seemed to be a pretty nice person."

    At first, Strozier said their relationship was fine, but he said they had a falling out after Muhammad borrowed $500 from the school and never repaid the debt. The school closed in 1998.

    "I know he was manipulative," Strozier said. "He would do anything to get his way."

    He also said Muhammad was a strong believer in Islam who attended the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, an event organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

    Muhammad's second marriage also fell apart, and Mildred Muhammad was granted a divorce in 2001 based on a finding of domestic violence by the courts.

    In court documents obtained by CNN, Muhammad's second wife wrote that her ex-husband was an irrational man who repeatedly threatened to "destroy my life" and told her he would "not let me raise our children."

    "I am afraid of John," Mildred Muhammad wrote in a March 3, 2000, complaint. "He was a demolition expert in the military. He's behaving very, very irrational. Whenever he does talk with me, he always says that he's going to destroy my life, and I hang up the phone."

    But affidavits filed on Muhammad's behalf in the divorce case described him as an "excellent father" and questioned his wife's version of their marriage.

    In late 1998, family friend Anthony Muhammad said in divorce papers filed in 2001, "Mildred ... began losing the ability to maintain the professional standards she had set." Anthony Muhammad seemed surprised at her request for a restraining order against her husband and said he prayed his affidavit "helps bring justice and closure to this unfortunate circumstance."

    At one point, John Allen Muhammad picked up the couple's three children from school and disappeared with them. Mildred Muhammad eventually got her children back and got a restraining order against him, one that was made permanent. She moved to Clinton, Maryland, just outside Washington.

    In Baton Rouge, Sheron Norman -- the sister of Carol Williams -- said Muhammad also had refused to bring her nephew home after a visitation.

    When Carol Williams got her son back, he was about 30 pounds thinner, Norman said, and the boy told family members he lived all summer on a diet of ramen noodles, a prepackaged meal of noodles and broth, with daily runs of several miles enforced by his father.

    Connection with Malvo unclear

    At some point after his second divorce, Muhammad first had contact with Malvo, but it is unclear when the two met. Malvo, a Jamaican, was allegedly in the country illegally. The State Department said it had no record of issuing a visa to Malvo.

    Malvo and his mother came to Florida from Jamaica and may have stopped at other Caribbean islands en route, perhaps Antigua, where Muhammad -- whose mother was Antiguan -- was granted citizenship in 2001 as John Allen Williams.

    The immigration status of Malvo and his mother, Una James, came into question when authorities were called to the house they shared with Muhammad in December 2001 during an unspecified dispute. Malvo and his mother were taken into custody and fingerprinted before being released on bond.

    From there, Malvo somehow ended up in Bellingham, Washington, where he lived at the Lighthouse Mission with Muhammad. Malvo registered himself at Bellingham High School in December 2001, saying he was living with Muhammad at a local homeless shelter.

    According to police, Muhammad presented himself to others as Malvo's father or as some relation. Malvo stayed at the high school briefly and then moved on, officials said.

    Muhammad also was ticketed for shoplifting in Tacoma in February 2002 -- a surprise to Strozier, who ran the martial-arts school with him. "To me, that's totally out of character," Strozier said.

    Three times this year, Muhammad visited relatives in Louisiana. In the spring, cousin Ed Holiday said that he looked on top of the world. But just a few months later, in late July or early August, Holiday said he saw a different man.

    "This time around, he was sleeping in bus stations, and he didn't even have a car," Holiday said.

    Just a few weeks later, Alabama authorities say, Muhammad and Malvo were involved in a double shooting at a liquor store in Montgomery. One woman died.

    On September 10, Muhammad purchased a Chevrolet Caprice along with Nathaniel Osbourne, who also has been arrested as a material witness in the case. The car was registered at an address in Camden, New Jersey. Muhammad and Malvo were arrested October 24 while asleep in the Caprice at a rest stop off Interstate 70 in Maryland.

    The sniper attacks began October 2 -- swift, one-shot attacks authorities in Maryland, Virginia and Washington all say were committed by the pair.

    Public records show Muhammad's last address as a Clinton, Maryland, house where his second ex-wife lives with their three children and other relatives. It is unknown if Muhammad ever lived in the house, but at least one neighbor saw him in the area recently.

    A motive in the sniper shootings remains unclear. Why would a Gulf War veteran and a Jamaican teenager launch a deadly spree of sniper shootings, as authorities allege?

    Some reports said the two may have expressed anti-American sentiment in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. But none of the friends or family members who have spoken with CNN said they ever heard any such remarks, and police have not publicly made such a connection.

    "I don't know," said Ronald Norman, Muhammad's former brother-in-law and a Baton Rouge police officer, when asked if he thought police had the right man.

    "It don't look good, as a police officer," he said. "It don't look good."

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