By Jayson Blair, The New York Times
Rockville, Md., -- State and federal investigators said today that
John Muhammad had been talking to them for more than an hour on the
day of his arrest in the sniper shootings, explaining the roots of
his anger, when the United States attorney for Maryland told them to
deliver him to Baltimore to face federal weapons charges and forcing
them to end their interrogation.
The investigators said an F.B.I. agent and a Maryland detective had
begun to develop a rapport with Mr. Muhammad. The other suspect, Lee
Malvo, 17, being questioned by a Montgomery County detective, was not
answering any questions, the investigators said.
"It did not look like the juvenile was going to talk," a local law
enforcement official said. "But it looked like Muhammad was ready to
share everything, and these guys were going to get a confession."
The investigators said they spoke with a reporter to explain why they
have been so upset with the federal prosecutor, Thomas M. DiBiagio,
who brought federal charges today against Mr. Muhammad. The account
was given by two law enforcement officials from Maryland and three
federal officials involved in the case.
Two Maryland state officials and two federal officials said that in a
conference call with police officials and prosecutors Mr. DiBiagio
had said he was "on orders from the Justice Department and the White
House" to take the suspects into custody. They said one federal
investigator had checked with the criminal division of the Justice
Department, which said there was no such order.
Today, the federal government charged Mr. Muhammad with using murder
as a way to commit extortion across state lines. Aides to Attorney
General John Ashcroft said he wanted to determine the best
jurisdiction for the death penalty.
Federal officials had filed the weapons charge against Mr. Muhammad
as a means of holding him. The charges require that he be taken
before a federal magistrate soon after being arrested. A senior law
enforcement official defended Mr. DiBiagio's decision, saying it was
based on the law and an effort to protect the case. "All this was
about was being a good lawyer," the official said.
The investigators said, though, that within hours of the arrests of
Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo at a rest stop at 3:19 a.m. on Oct. 24 in
Myersville, they had enough evidence to file state murder charges,
meaning they could continue questioning him for as long as a day
before taking him before a judge.
The investigators said they ignored Mr. DiBiagio's first call at
10:30 a.m. By 1 o'clock, they said, Mr. DiBiagio told F.B.I. agents
to seize Mr. Muhammad if he was not sent to Baltimore.
A federal law enforcement official dismissed the idea that Mr.
Muhammad might have confessed to the killings if the interrogations
had continued. The official said Mr. Muhammad "was talking, but he
wasn't giving anything relevant to the crimes" in the interrogation.
"I don't believe there's anything to that at all," the official said,
referring to a suggestion that Mr. DiBiagio's action had hurt the
case. "The investigation has been a fully cooperative enterprise, and
everyone's first priority is to bring these guys to justice. So they
obviously wouldn't do anything to damage that."
State and federal investigators who were at the Montgomery County
police building where Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were taken on the
morning of the arrests recalled the conference call with police
officials, prosecutors and Mr. DiBiagio. The investigators now say
they do not believe that Mr. DiBiagio was "on orders from the Justice
Department and the WHite House" to take the suspects into custody.
A senior federal law enforcement official said that it was routine
for the Justice Department to become involved in such decisions but
that officials there had not given Mr. DiBiagio any orders and that
"the White House had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with that."
The official said that Mr. Muhammad "was just babbling" and that
taking the men to court in Baltimore was a "mutual decision" by
prosecutors and members of the sniper task force. This official added
that it "wasn't the U.S. attorney coming in and saying, `We're going
to do this.' "
Even if the move got in the way of a fruitful interrogation, the
senior federal law enforcement official said, there would be no need
for a confession in this case. "Tell me what more we need from them,"
the official said. "We have the ballistics. We don't need the
The investigators disclosed today that a few hours after the arrests,
the Montgomery County police had decided to charge Mr. Muhammad and
Mr. Malvo with six counts of murder. They went forward with those
charges on Friday. The charges would have been based on a rifle found
in the car, a bipod to hold the weapon found in the trunk and two new
items, a glove that matched one found at a shooting scene in the
Aspen Hill area and a notepad that matched the paper used in notes
that investigators think the sniper sent.
Even though they had probable cause, the investigators said, the
police decided not to charge Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo, a move they
could have made without consulting the local prosecutor, after Mr.
DiBiagio had made his request. In addition to the county detectives
and the F.B.I. agent, federal and local law enforcement officials had
gathered to watch the interrogation.
Among those involved in the discussions over whether to file local
charges or send the suspects to Mr. DiBiagio were Chief Charles A.
Moose of the Montgomery County police; State's Attorney Douglas F.
Gansler, the county prosecutor; two of his deputies, Katherine S.
Winfree and John J. McCarthy; two assistant United States attorneys
from Maryland, James M. Trusty and A. David Copperthite; and two
assistant United States attorneys from the Eastern District of
Virginia, James L. Trump and Kevin V. DeGregory.
Investigators said members of the group decided to plead with Mr.
DiBiagio to allow them to continue the interrogation of Mr. Muhammad.
In the afternoon, Mr. DiBiagio held a conference call with Mr.
Copperthite, Mr. Gansler, Ms. Winfree and a Montgomery County
detective who had been involved in the interrogations, all of whom
were said to have argued that Mr. DiBiagio allow the questioning to
"We told him he needed to drop the federal charges because we had
them in the middle of an interrogation and that we could file state
charges," one federal law enforcement official said. "He said, `It is
out of my hands, and this was coming from the White House and the
Justice Department.' "
The federal law enforcement official said Chief Moose argued that the
group should turn over Mr. Muhammad to Mr. DiBiagio to prevent
problems in the investigation.
"The Montgomery County police had made the determination that they
had probable cause and they were going to charge them with six counts
of murder, and they were not asking, they were telling," one local
official said. "But ultimately, Chief Moose feared that a battle
between the prosecutors would hurt the cooperation among his
department and the federal agencies."
Mr. Muhammad was taken from the interrogation room and driven to
Baltimore at 3 p.m., the law enforcement officials said. Mr. Muhammad
and Mr. Malvo appeared in court for hearings on the federal charges
and were provided lawyers. Investigators said that since then Mr.
Muhammad has not talked to investigators.
Richard S. Stolker, a former federal prosecutor in the District of
Columbia who is in private practice and teaches criminal law at the
University of Maryland, said it was highly unusual for an
interrogation to be stopped midstream.
"If they have waived their rights and it is a voluntary thing and
they are chattering away," Mr. Stolker said, "most investigators
would carry that on as long as possible."