Closing the net: How they cracked the case
By Simon Duffy
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After a 22-day waking nightmare that saw a deadly sniper turn the gas stations and shopping malls of the suburban landscape into his own private killing field, D.C.-area residents will sleep soundly again tonight.
What began with a bullet through a Maryland craft store window and escalated into the largest manhunt the Washington area has ever seen, apparently came to a successful conclusion in the early hours of Thursday morning when a Gulf War veteran and his Jamaican teenage companion were found asleep in a car at a rest stop on Interstate 70 west of Frederick, Maryland, and taken into custody.
So far, neither man faces charges in connection with the sniper killings, but authorities seem satisfied they have captured the men responsible, sources say.
The suspects were identified as John Allen Muhammad, 41, and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, a Jamaican citizen. They were sleeping in a blue 1990 Chevy Caprice, the car police sought in the sniper probe, officials said.
The trail that led investigators to the rest area parking lot began with a boast about a previous killing and took investigators across the United States before the two men were taken into custody without incident, according to officials.
The biggest break came when the sniper himself called the task force hotline last Thursday, boasting about killing before and telling police to take a look at an unsolved murder case in Montgomery, law enforcement sources told CNN.
But the sniper was talking about a shooting in the capital of Alabama, not Montgomery County, Maryland, where many of the Washington-area shootings occurred. The next night, investigators got a call from a priest who said he had received a phone call from a man boasting of a killing in Montgomery, Alabama, weeks before, the sources said.
Sniper investigators contacted Montgomery, Alabama, police authorities October 20 and described the incident.
The Alabama officers linked the sniper suspects to a shooting incident on September 21, which left one woman dead and another injured after a hold-up outside an ABC Beverages liquor store.
After that shooting, a suspect was chased on foot by police who came within a few feet of them before they escaped.
But investigators did find a fingerprint at the scene.
The investigation kicked into high gear:
The fingerprint from the shooting in Alabama was tracked to Malvo through his fingerprint records with the Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Authorities then learned Malvo had a relationship with Muhammad, a Gulf War Army veteran recognized as an expert marksman. One law enforcement source said Muhammad is believed to be the boyfriend of Malvo's mother.
Malvo became known to the INS in Tacoma, Washington, from an incident in December 2001 involving his mother and himself. His photograph was also contained in the INS records, and passed on to task force investigators.
The Malvo fingerprint, photograph and his relationship with Muhammad were major breaks in the case.
"We started running with it at that point," a senior law enforcement source said. "We were excited that at that point, we had an identity to look for -- something tangible for the first time."
The U.S. Marshals -- part of the sniper task force -- found another stunning detail: Muhammad had been stopped in northwest Baltimore on October 8, one day after the sniper critically wounded a 13-year-old boy outside a middle school. The vehicle he was in was a 1990 Chevy Caprice with New Jersey tags.
Muhammad was sleeping in the car at the time, and was the only one in the vehicle. The Baltimore police officer, described as a 25-year veteran, questioned Muhammad and grew curious because the man's driver's license was from Washington state and the vehicle tag was from New Jersey. Because there were no arrest warrants out for Muhammad at the time, the officer could only tell him to leave.
But the incident was logged into police records -- giving task force investigators more information on the potential suspects.
"That was the key, because up to that point everyone was looking for vehicles that didn't exist," the senior law enforcement source said of the Baltimore traffic incident.
With momentum in the case building, authorities now had Muhammad in a vehicle in the general vicinity of the shootings, and intelligence gathered in the case traced phone calls from the believed sniper to pay phones around Ashland, Virginia, the town where the sniper wounded a man outside the Ponderosa steakhouse Saturday.
Intelligence also put Malvo in the Ashland area beginning late Friday and leaving Sunday morning, several hours after the Ponderosa shooting, the senior source said.
By Wednesday, the Marshals connected Muhammad to the 1990 Caprice with New Jersey license plate NDA 21Z as a result of the Baltimore stop, and the noose was tightening on the suspects. The license plate and vehicle description was released to the news media.
Later Wednesday, Montgomery County, Maryland Police Chief Charles Moose, the lead investigator in the case, announced Muhammad might have information related to the sniper investigation and said an arrest warrant had been issued for unrelated firearms violations.
Truck driver Ron Lantz recognized the car as that being sought in the sniper case and notified police, who relayed the tip to the sniper task force, which immediately dispatched officers to the scene some 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., where the arrests were made.
Authorities examining the car discovered a Bushmaster rifle, a scope, a tripod and a "sniper's perch" in the trunk, sources said.
One senior law enforcement source called the Caprice a "killing machine" with two holes in the trunk, one for the rifle, the other for the scope, a senior law enforcement told CNN.
The two holes were there so that shots could be fired without opening the trunk, this source said, adding that the back seat could fold down, enabling a potential shooter to stretch out in the back without stepping foot outside.
The source called it a "perfect place" for a shooting platform.
Tests by the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms linked the weapon to all but three of the sniper shootings .
-- CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena and Jeanne Meserve, National News Desk Editor Wayne Drash and CNN.com writer Simon Duffy contributed to this report.