11/01/2002

Police to Issue Sniper-Shootings 'Breaking Information'

Alabama Announcement Expected Later Friday

MONTGOMERY, Alabama (CNN) -- Authorities plan to elaborate Friday on alleged links between the suspects in the D.C.-area sniper shootings and a murder at a Montgomery, Alabama, liquor store, with the police chief there saying that some "breaking information" will be released at an afternoon news conference.

Chief John Wilson said that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has given new information to the Montgomery police that "strengthens our case."

Capital murder warrants were issued there last week for John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, in the September 21 murder of liquor store employee Claudine Parker. Another woman was wounded in the attack.

Ballistic tests show that the gun in the killing in Montgomery was the same Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in many of the sniper attacks that began October 2, Alabama authorities said, and because of that they are not discounting the possibility that another person could have been involved in the shooting.

Wilson at first said a .22-caliber handgun had been used in the shooting. Witnesses have told police they saw one person holding a magazine and one person with a handgun, the chief said. But because no one saw the men with the rifle, it raises the question of a third person.

Wilson said he has a "gut feeling" that a third person was involved, and Attorney General John Ashcroft said investigators have not ruled out the possibility.

Baton Rouge connection

Louisiana has become the fourth state to file charges against Muhammad and Malvo.

A fatal shooting in Washington state is also being investigated for possible links to the pair, according to authorities. Muhammad faces a 20-count federal complaint and both men have been charged in Maryland, Virginia and Alabama.

The Louisiana announcement came hours after Alabama authorities said the gun used in a September 21 slaying at a liquor store in Montgomery also matched the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in the sniper attacks.

The Louisiana slaying was two days later, and the D.C.-area shootings began about a week later, on October 2.

In Baton Rouge, authorities issued arrest warrants for Muhammad and Malvo after ballistics tests matched the September 23 murder weapon with the same rifle found in the suspects' 1990 Chevy Caprice.

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.

"She didn't see it coming," he told CNN. "She had whatever the store made that day and was on her way to turn it in."

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.

More cases being reviewed

These cases could be just the beginning. Englade said authorities in Louisiana are looking at other unsolved killings in the area to see whether they are linked to the suspects.

"There could be other cases in Baton Rouge involved," he said. "We're investigating anything at this point."

Authorities in Lynnwood, Washington, said they are investigating whether Muhammad shot at their police station two years ago.

Police in Tacoma, Washington, earlier this week said they 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.

Third person may be involved

Attorney General John Ashcroft said investigators have not ruled out the possibility that others may have been involved in the sniper attacks that killed 10 people and wounded three others.

"We are not ruling out the possibility that other individuals may be involved or that the individuals currently in custody may have committed other criminal acts," Ashcroft said in a statement.

"We will proceed deliberately, cautiously, and not jump to any conclusions. The facts and the evidence will determine the final outcome, and we intend to follow the facts wherever they may lead," he said.

Ashcroft's comments about the possibility of others involved seemed to echo those of Montgomery's Wilson.

Jurisdictional tug of war

In another development in the jurisdictional tug of war in the D.C. area, authorities in Prince George's County, Maryland, filed attempted first-degree murder charges against both suspects in the shooting of a 13-year-old boy outside a middle school in Bowie.

Jack Johnson, the Maryland state attorney for the county, said he intends to prosecute the case, no matter how long he has to wait; but he said the four counties in Maryland and Virginia that have filed murder charges should try the two individuals first.

Johnson also said he was not convinced the death penalty would apply in any of the Maryland cases.

Securing death penalty-eligible convictions against the two -- something that would be possible only in Virginia because of Malvo's age -- has been the key issue in the debate over who should try the suspect.
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