The lead all around, under banner headlines at the Washington Post and USA Today, is the capture of the man and teenager, John Allen Muhammed and John Lee Malvo, thought to be responsible for the sniper killings in the Washington, D.C., area. The men were arrested without a struggle in the middle of Wednesday night at a rest stop in Maryland, where they were sleeping in their Chevrolet Caprice. Authorities used ballistic evidence to link a .223 caliber rifle discovered in their car to several of the shootings. The trunk and backseat of the car had been turned into a sniper’s perch, with a hole drilled out of the back for the gun to fit through. Muhammed was arraigned last night in Baltimore on federal weapons charges, and Malvo is being held as a material witness. The two have not yet been charged with the murders.
The papers say the break in the case came on Oct. 17 when a furious man called the Montgomery County police insisting he was God and angry that the police weren’t taking his call seriously. “Don’t you know who you’re dealing with? Just check out the murder-robbery in Montgomery, [Ala.] if you don’t believe me!” the caller said, according to the New York Times. After a priest contacted police and told them someone claiming to be the beltway sniper had suggested to him that police should investigate the Alabama robbery-murder, officials followed the lead. A gun magazine left at the scene of that crime yielded Malvo’s fingerprint; he had been fingerprinted following an encounter with the INS in Washington state. Malvo was known to hang out with Muhammed, a former soldier who investigators indicated may have left forensic evidence on one of the sniper letters, the NYT says. From there investigators went to Tacoma, Wash., to dig up a tree stump that the pair had used for target practice. They also publicized the license-plate number of the pair’s car, and a driver on Interstate 70 spotted it, leading to the arrest.
Authorities wouldn’t speculate officially on the pair’s motives. According to a law-enforcement official cited by the NYT, Muhammed, who was born John Allen Williams and converted to Islam some time ago, made angry statements about the United States and expressed sympathy for the Sept. 11 terrorists. Yet he has no known connection to al-Qaida.
The papers profile the pair. Muhammed, a “serial loser” in the WP’s words, became a vagabond after losing two families due to divorces and custody battles and two businesses due to ineptitude. He was an unimpressive soldier who served in Desert Storm and was very interested in weaponry. He earned a high ranking in marksmanship in the Army. His acquaintances all thought he seemed like a normal guy, if sometimes prone to anger. But one of his ex-wives, who had a restraining order filed against him after she said he abducted their children, disagreed with that characterization. In Bellingham, Wash., he paired up with Malvo, a teen who had sneaked into the U.S. from Jamaica with his mother. Muhammed took to sometimes calling the teenager his son, nicknamed him “Sniper,” and restricted his diet to honey, crackers, and vitamins.
The second major story in the papers is an update on the Chechens who are holding 700 people hostage in a theater in Moscow and threatening to blow up the building if Russia does not end its war in Chechnya. They have killed one young woman, and they fired rockets at two others who managed to escape the theater. There are 75 foreigners, including three Americans, among the hostages, and the Chechens have promised to free the foreigners. Seven hostages were freed today, for a total of 45. Russia’s domestic intelligence agency is negotiating with the Chechens.
The papers emphasize a new report from a panel of national-security experts that says that the United States is still “dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. … In all likelihood, the next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to our lives and economy.” The problem remains that local police don’t have much access to intelligence on terrorism suspects, not many ships and containers entering U.S. ports are inspected, and emergency workers aren’t ready for biological and chemical attacks. Many members of this commission served on another one in March 2001 that predicted a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The FBI issued a terror warning last night, the papers note, saying al-Qaida may be interested in attacking passenger trains using operatives that look like Westerners.
Two papers (NYT, Los Angeles Times) run stories inside explaining Montgomery County Police Chief Moose’s recent reference to “a duck in a noose.” The reference, as Slate explained, is to a Cherokee folk tale in which a rabbit tries to catch a duck with a noose and the duck lifts off, rabbit in tow. The rabbit slips off the rope and falls into a tree where it gets stuck. The LAT gets this comment from a spokesperson for the Cherokee nation: “It does look like [the sniper] maybe is the rabbit,” she said. The NYT gets this from a “modern duck hunter” who doesn’t favor the noose as a weapon in a duck hunt: “The only thing I have ever done to ducks is shoot them,” he said.