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Medium Rare: Usually Reliable Sources?

Usually Reliable Sources?

Medium Rare
By Jim Rarey

Reviewing the Beltway Sniper Case retrospectively, the media (collectively) has egg on its face, and for once it's not their fault. As the "sniper" Task Force gave less and less hard information, the media published stories based on information from "usually reliable sources" within the law enforcement community. Almost all of them got "burned" at least once with stories that later proved to be false. There should be intensive behind-the-scenes reviews by news organizations of sources for law enforcement information and their trustworthiness for the future.

The "transmission belts" that can be relied on to promote the government's "spin" were not exempted, e.g. The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Even the venerable New York Times (the lead transmission belt) got caught with a story that was demonstrably false.

The misinformation (or disinformation) revolves around the key "facts' that led to the identification of John Allen Muhammad (aka John Williams, Wayne Weeks, and Wayne Weekley) and the 17-year old John Lee Malvo (whose real name apparently is Lee Boyd Malvo).

The first misinformation was fed to Fox Cable News through reporter Rita Cosby (no relation to the entertainer). Cosby and Fox Cable News were fast acquiring a reputation for straight reporting (ignoring government spin). Fox is reported to be the White House's least favorite news organization. It may be for just that reason that Fox and Cosby were "given" the opportunity to break the big story which went something like this.

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A note supposedly left by the sniper at the scene of the shooting in Ashland, Virginia demanded that $10 million be transferred to a certain credit card account. Cosby was told that credit card had been stolen in an attempted robbery and murder at a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama on September 21st.

The two perpetrators were nearly caught by a cruising patrol car but managed to escape. During the chase one of the two had dropped a "magazine" later identified as a gun catalog. A fingerprint from the catalog was obtained by the Montgomery (Maryland) Task Force and run through the FBI's national data base matching that of John Lee Malvo. Malvo had been in custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) at one time in the State of Washington and was known to be closely associated with a John Allen Muhammad. The investigation shifted to Tacoma and Bellingham, Washington. Without disclosing any names, the media trumpeted the credit card and fingerprint as solving the case.

That fairy tale scenario began to crumble the following morning (October 24th) when Montgomery, Alabama Police Chief, John Wilson in a live television press conference emphatically denied (at least twice) that a credit card had been involved in the liquor store shooting. (It was later disclosed the credit card had been stolen from the purse of a bus driver in Arizona during a run between Nogales and Flagstaff on March 25th of this year.). The original report said a $12.01 charge for gas in the Washington D.C. area had been made against the card before the account was closed. That was later changed to the purchase being made in Tacoma, Washington.

Once the credit card link was proved to be non-existent, Plan "B" was circulated throughout the media. The note left at the scene of the Ashland, Va. shooting (presumably by the shooter) complained that agents answering the hotlines did not believe calls made by the writer of the note that included references to a crime in Montgomery (according to the Task Force). It also included a reference to a call to an unnamed priest in Ashland. Although the note listed telephone numbers the writer had called, none was given for the priest.

The message the anonymous caller gave the priest (Monsignor William V.Sullivan) was that the crime to which he was referring was in Montgomery, Alabama, not Montgomery County, Maryland. The New York Times published a story claiming the priest then forwarded the information to the Task Force which started the chain of events that resulted in matching Malvo's fingerprints.

However the bishop of the Richmond Catholic Diocese (Walter F. Sullivan) said father Sullivan did not call the Task Force thinking it was a crank call. The following morning an FBI agent showed up and, according to Monsignor Sullivan, he said they suspected one of his parishioners was involved in the sniper attacks. The agent said they had traced a telephone call to the rectory! It was at this point that Father Sullivan told the agent about the call he had received and the reference to Montgomery, Alabama. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch this all occurred on Sunday, October 22nd.

The next day (October 23rd) a Task Force member traveled to Alabama and obtained the fingerprint evidence which was brought back to Maryland and run through the FBI national data base.It was the following day that Chief Wilson shot down the credit card story.

Plan "C"" now claims that the tip about the liquor store murder in Montgomery, Alabama was received in a previously undisclosed telephone contact with a person the Task Force believes to have been the shooter. Of course there is no one but the caller and the Task Force who can contradict that scenario if indeed such a contact was made.

Montgomery police forwarded the print to the Alabama State Police forensic lab on Sept. 24th, three days after the murder at the liquor store. However, because of short staffing and a backlog, the print was not processed into the FBI data bank for 27 days.

In its Sunday edition October 27, the New York Times (perhaps in retaliation for its embarrassment from previous "tips") claimed the name of John Muhammad and a description of the Caprice he was driving was being given to some police agencies in the D.C. area as early as Tuesday evening, October 22nd, the same day as the last killing of the bus driver.

When the Task Force finally released Muhammad's name to the media it did not mention the Caprice.The capture on the 24th was the result of an enterprising reporter who caught an APB on a police scanner which gave the license number and description of the Caprice. This may well have been the information referenced in the NYT article.

According to yesterday's NYT the FBI's national data base was queried eleven times about the Caprice's license tags over a period of about a month and a half by police in the D.C. area. Four of them occurred in an 18-day period before the first shooting. In each instance no action was taken because the data base is said to contain no information on outstanding warrants.

However, when Muhammad was arraigned after his capture he was charged with a violation of Federal Gun Laws based on an outstanding warrant. The warrant stemmed from Muhammad's sale of a Bushmaster rifle similar to the one alleged to have been used in the shootings to the gun dealer (for $500) from which he had previously purchased the weapon for $800. This was a couple of months after his ex-wife had obtained a personal protection order (PPO) against him. Federal law prohibits any person the subject of a PPO possessing or owning a firearm.

If that warrant was missed when the checks were run (if they were run) there should have been another arrest warrant in the data base for Muhammad. Earlier, Muhammad and Malvo (who gave police the name of John Muhammad, Jr) were arrested on a shoplifting charge in Tacoma. Muhammad was scheduled to appear in court in March of this year but failed to show. This should have resulted in issuance of a bench warrant for his arrest.

There are other conflicting stories that have appeared based on information from usually reliable sources.

Most of the media claimed Muhammad had earned an "expert" marksmanship rating (the highest) in the army. However, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said it had access to the official military record of Muhammad which lists his highest rating as "sharpshooter" one step below expert.

Although there has been little discussion of it in the media, the most controversial issue may turn out to be the source of Muhammad and Malvo's funds. Of those venturing into this minefield, the consensus appears to be their money came from doing odd jobs. It is pointed out that for the nearly two years the pair were in the Pacific northwest, they stayed (off and on) at a homeless shelter and at other times slept in their car.

However, the director of the shelter, Reverend Alan Archer, said Muhammad appeared to have plenty of money. Muhammad made numerous airplane trips away from the area including journeys to his home state of Louisiana, the Caribbean, and Denver and Salt Lake City for skiing trips. This was so incongruous to Archer that he suspected Muhammad might be a sleeper terrorist which he so reported to the FBI nearly a year before the spate of shootings.

Others say the pair may have financed their travels through crime, pointing to the attempted liquor store robbery in Alabama. Washington D.C. officials are said to be reviewing unsolved bank robberies in the area.

One thing government officials seem unanimous on is that Muhammad had nothing to do with any organized terrorist groups as stated by Montgomery County (Maryland) state's attorney Doug Gansler on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday. Yet Muhammad's activities and associations in the Caribbean island nation of Antigua need official explanation.

Muhammad/Williams lived for several years in Antigua. With no visible means of support he nevertheless could afford to send his three children to one of the few private schools on the island. He was known by friends and associates there to be involved in arranging illegal entry for non-citizens into the U.S.

Evidently Muhammad would furnish fraudulent passports and birth certificates for a fee of from $1,000 to $1,500 per person. The illegal aliens would then be furnished with the return portion of a round-trip airline ticket from the U.S. to Antigua.That doesn't sound like a one-man operation. Gansler said, We're looking into the angles and explanations."

Antiguan acquaintances of Muhammad relate a couple of instances when he had brushes with immigration authorities but was never charged after talking to higher-ups. Muhammad was said to boast that he had contacts in the FBI and CIA.

It may have been in the smuggling operation that Muhammad made the connection with Malvo. Lee and his mother, Uma James were illegal entrants into the U.S. Landing first in Florida, Lee attending a high school there for a brief time. Eventually they migrated to Washington and ended up in Bellingham where Lee enrolled at the high school there.

When school officials could not verify legal documentation they notified the INS. Malvo and his mother were apprehended and confined in a Seattle detention center to be deported. Ms. James claimed they had been brought to Florida on a cargo boat filled with illegal Asians. Evidently she could not or refused to identify the ship. Under changes to immigration laws in 1997, that made her and her son eligible for mandatory deportation without a hearing.

However, in violation of the law, Seattle INS officials freed James on $1,500 bail and Malvo without any bail. According to syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who followed up on the story, Seattle officials refused any explanation and referred her to INS headquarters in the Justice Department in D.C. Those officials also stonewalled referring Malkin to the Maryland sniper Task Force which refused to comment. It almost seems as though both Muhammad and Malvo had "guardian angels" in at least the ranks of immigration officials.

Most of the media, back in "synch" with government officials, have portrayed the sniper Task Force operation as a model of inter-agency cooperation and efficiency. This despite all the missed opportunities to apprehend and arrest Muhammad and the disingenuous stories about how they came into possession of evidence.

One of the unquestioned premises of the investigation is that the persons with whom the Task Force was dealing in telephone calls and cryptic statements delivered through the media were also the shooters who seemed bent on giving the Task Force enough clues to effect their apprehension. That just doesn't make any sense at all. It boggles the mind to believe that Muhammad was stupid enough to think he could get away with collecting $10 million dollars in extorted funds without getting caught. In other words, were Muhammad and Malvo (who most likely are the shooters) set up to be captured at the end of the terror inspiring killing spree?

There is one theory, rife on the Internet, that will be immediately rejected by most. That is that Muhammad and Malvo were operating under some kind of mind control. This writer must admit that County Police Chief Charles Moose's delivery of cryptic statements in live television press conferences to one he believed to be the sniper sent a chill down the back. It immediately brought to mind the Frank Sinatra/Laurence Harvey movie, The Manchurian Candidate about an assassin programmed by mind control who was triggered by spoken phrases.

At any rate, there are still a lot more questions than there are answers.


- Permission is granted to reproduce this article in its entirety.

The author is a free lance writer based in Romulus, Michigan. He is a former newspaper editor and investigative reporter, a retired customs administrator and accountant, and a student of history and the U.S. Constitution.

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