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Bitter divorce blamed for sniper shootings

From Mike Ahlers

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Prosecutors blamed John Allen Muhammad's anger at his ex-wife for spurring a series of sniper shootings in the Washington area. CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports (September 24)
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MANASSAS, Virginia (CNN) -- Prosecutors blamed John Allen Muhammad's anger at his ex-wife Tuesday for spurring nearly a yearlong rage of violence that ended with a series of sniper shootings in the Washington area last fall.

Prosecutors at a pre-trial hearing to determine what evidence will be allowed at trial for Muhammad's part in the sniper shootings said the defendant was angry about a court's decision to give his former wife, Mildred Green, sole custody of their children.

Prosecutor Rich Conway said, Muhammad "became obsessed with finding her."

Muhammad traced Green to Maryland but then, unable to find her, "began shooting people around her," Conway said.

Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. kept prosecutors from using threats that Muhammad allegedly made against his ex-wife as evidence, unless a stronger link can be established between the threats and the shootings.

Muhammad, 42, and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, have been charged with 13 shootings, including 10 deaths, during a three-week spree that terrorized the Washington area last fall. They are also suspected or charged in shootings in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Arizona and Washington state.

Muhammad had previously been charged with harassing and stalking his ex-wife and children. He was prohibited from owning a gun or approaching his second wife, Green, by the restraining order she obtained in 2000.

Muhammad moved to Tacoma, Washington, with 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.

Green was granted a divorce in 2001 based on a finding of domestic violence by the courts.

Police in Tacoma, Washington, have investigated the February 16, 2002, slaying of 21-year-old Keenya Cook. She was killed with a single shot from a high-caliber handgun as she cooked dinner in her aunt's home.

The woman's aunt, Isa Nichols, was Muhammad's friend. Nichols told police she first met him in 1995 and even worked as his tax accountant for his car repair business. She also told them that when Muhammad was going through a divorce, she sided with his ex-wife in a custody battle.

Witness points to Muhammad, Malvo

Also at Tuesday's hearing, a chiropractor testified that an hour before a sniper shot a 13-year-old student outside a Maryland school he saw Muhammad and Malvo sitting in a blue Chevrolet Caprice near the middle school.

Gerald E. Driscoll said he saw the two men October 7 near Bowie, Maryland.

Driscoll is the first person to testify about seeing either of the alleged sniper suspects at any of the 13 sniper shooting scenes.

Defense attorneys attempted to cast doubt on his testimony, noting that he did not pick Muhammad or Malvo from police photo arrays until months after their arrests. By that time, they argued, photos of the two men had been published in newspapers and broadcast on television scores of times.

Driscoll testified at a pre-trial hearing for Muhammad at Prince William County Circuit Court, at which Muhammad's attorneys challenged the validity of several witness identifications.

Driscoll said he was driving to work when he stopped at a red light near Benjamin Tasker Middle School. He said he noticed two people sitting in a blue Chevrolet Caprice about 10 to 20 yards in front of him and perpendicular to him.

Driscoll said the car was notable because it was sitting on the wrong side of the traffic island and was not moving though he presumed it had a green light.

"He seemed very happy, smiling, carrying on a conversation with a passenger, joking," Driscoll said of the car's driver. In court, Driscoll identified Muhammad as that driver.

According to Driscoll, after 10 or 15 seconds, the passenger climbed into the back seat and began fidgeting with something.

The shooting occurred about an hour later. When Driscoll heard about the shooting, he said, he recalled seeing the blue car, as well as a white van several blocks earlier.

Driscoll said that about three days after the shooting, he called police.

He testified he was "not entirely sure" what he told police but said he believes he told them about seeing the white van and the blue Caprice that day, as well as seeing a young man carrying what looked like a case for a gun or pool cue near the school several weeks before the shooting.

He said police did not get back to him until after Muhammad and Malvo were arrested October 24.

And, he said, they did not come and interview him in person for two or three months.

Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. ruled that police properly conducted their photo identification process with Driscoll and said that the information from that can be used at Muhammad's trial, which is to start October 14.

Millette also said prosecutors could use two other identifications, both from employees at the Silver Spring, Maryland, YMCA who identified Muhammad and Malvo in photo lineups and said the two were occasional visitors to the facility.

"They were nice, smiling, and talked to me -- friendly," said Sharon Douglas, an employee at the YMCA. "I did not think anything but [that] this was a father and son."

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