Police link September shooting to sniper suspects
ROCKVILLE, Maryland (CNN) -- Task force investigators late Friday linked yet another shooting to the D.C.-area sniper suspects -- this one 2 1/2 weeks before the deadly 21-day spree that left 10 people dead and three others wounded in the Washington metropolitan area.
Suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, have also been linked to killings in Washington state, Louisiana and Alabama.
In the latest case, Benny Oberoi, 22, an employee of a liquor store in Silver Spring, Maryland, was shot and wounded by a single bullet soon after he and his boss closed up the store Saturday, September 14. He is expected to make a full recovery.
In an interview with the New York Daily News last month, store owner Arnie Zelkovitz said Oberoi was heading to the parking lot when he turned back to wait for his boss. A single shot rang out and Oberoi twisted and crumpled to the ground.
Zelkovitz, 50, rushed to his aid and Oberoi said, "I'm hurt, I'm hurt. I can't breathe."
The store owner lifted the man's shirt and saw a tiny hole in his back with blood oozing from it.
"Call 911! Someone call 911!" Oberoi shouted.
The two men told the New York Daily News they suspected they were victims of the sniper as soon as the other shootings began October 2 but that police told them they could have been the target of a robbery or a hate crime.
However, authorities say they have been looking at the case for weeks to see if it was connected to the sniper attacks.
Montgomery County Police Capt. Nancy Demme told CNN ballistic evidence was inconclusive, but that the circumstances of the shooting, witness accounts and the fact that the sniper suspects' 1990 Chevrolet Caprice was in the area that day resulted in investigators tying the shooting to the other cases.
"The combination of those three factors led the task force to officially link this shooting to the other sniper shootings," she said.
This is now the earliest of any shootings that authorities say is conclusively linked to Muhammad and Malvo -- even pre-dating two fatal shootings in Alabama and Louisiana which happened the following week, September 21 and September 23.
The two suspects face multiple murder charges, some of which could result in a death penalty verdict, depending on the jurisdiction. (Charges by jurisdiction)
Authorities across the country are re-examining unsolved shooting cases and some believe a killings across the United States may be linked to the two men.
Police in Tacoma, Washington, suspect the two may have killed a 21-year-old mother in February and may have used a firearm to vandalize a synagogue there.
Muhammad and Malvo were in Tacoma February 16 when Keenya Cook was killed in her home, shot in the head. Police said the two may have had access to the gun that killed her. (Full story)
Authorities in Lynnwood, Washington, said they are investigating whether Muhammad shot at their police station two years ago.
New gun found in Alabama
Police in Alabama Friday said a newly found handgun has raised questions of whether a second weapon and possibly a third person may have been involved in a liquor store slaying linked to the sniper suspects.
"I'm not going to lock myself into saying conclusively there was a third person and I'm not going to be locked into saying there wasn't," said Montgomery, Alabama, Police Chief John Wilson.
Capital murder warrants were issued last week for Muhammad and Malvo in the September 21 shooting death of Alabama liquor store employee Claudine Parker. Another woman was wounded in the crime.
Police reports at the time of the shooting said witnesses saw "the flash of a handgun," according to the police chief, but no one reported seeing a rifle at the scene. He also said the reports stated one officer had chased one suspect and a civilian had chased the man police now believe was Malvo.
A .22 caliber Magnum handgun was found Wednesday in the area where an officer said he was pursuing Muhammad, said Wilson. The gun, covered by leaves, was found by a civilian.
Based on eyewitness accounts and state-run ballistic tests on a recovered bullet fragment, the weapon used in the deadly robbery was thought to be a .22 caliber Magnum. But new ballistic tests have linked that fragment from the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in many of the D.C.-area sniper attacks that began October 2. (More on the rifle)
The chief said ATF explained the bullets were very, very similar.
"You're talking about paper thin differences and what we were dealing with were microscopic fragments," explained Wilson.
Authorities said the handgun was originally registered to an address in Oklahoma. It was stolen at a gun show in El Paso,Texas in July.
Wilson said he wants to talk to Muhammad and Malvo, calling them a "key investigative tool."
"In most cases, particularly when you have suspects, the best source of information you can have is the suspects themselves. And we to this date have not had the opportunity to talk to any of the suspects," said Wilson. "So it keeps us at a tremendous disadvantage to try to put the pieces of the puzzle without the biggest piece being there."
Baton Rouge connection
Louisiana was the fourth state to file charges against Muhammad and Malvo after ballistic tests matched the September 23 murder weapon with the same rifle found in the suspects' Caprice.
The Louisiana slaying came two days after the Alabama shooting, and the D.C.-area shootings began about a week later.
Hong Ballenger, 45, a Korean native and mother of three, was shot September 23 in the back of the head with a single bullet while she was getting into her car, shortly after closing up her beauty supply shop around 6:40 p.m. Her purse was stolen.
Her husband of 22 years, James Ballenger, said she was carrying more than $1,000, most of it money from the store that was to be deposited in the bank. (Husband says he opposes death penalty)
Ballenger suspected Malvo might be involved in his wife's killing when he saw pictures of the sniper suspects last week, he said. He told local police, "Maybe this same guy killed my wife."
Police initially told him his wife's slaying "didn't fit the same MO (modus operandi) because she was robbed."
But eventually police and the FBI took a closer look because Muhammad and Malvo had been in Baton Rouge over the summer. Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade said evidence retrieved from the suspects' car in Maryland shows they were in Baton Rouge the day Ballenger was shot to death.