John Allen Muhammad, 41, is a serial loser. He is a failed businessman whose karate school and car-repair business went bust, a twice-divorced father whose ex-wives didn't trust him with his children, a man whose unremarkably messy life disintegrated into homelessness and petty theft.
"He was angry at how he was treated over his kids," said John S. Mills, the Tacoma lawyer who represented Muhammad as he tried unsuccessfully to find his family and regain custody of his children. "He was never able to locate her. That went on for two or three months. Then he vanished. He dropped off the radar screen."
Muhammad and his wife were always pleasant, she said. After she filed for divorce in 1999, they continued to live together, Muhammad said in court filings, until "a big blowup" after which she told him to leave. Eventually, he took the children out of the country, he said in court papers. Mildred Muhammad, left without money for food or rent, checked into a Tacoma hospital, Whitlock said.
In March 1988, he married his second wife, and they went on to have three children. John ran an auto-repair business.
According to friends, the couple initially had a great relationship. "From 1992 until 1999, John and Mildred and the children had a model family picture," Anthony G. Muhammah, a friend who lived in Tacoma, wrote in court papers.
But they began to suffer setbacks. In the late 1990s, Muhammad and a business partner, Felix Strozier, started a karate school, expecting to draw many students from Tacoma's Muslim community. Too few came and the school closed, leaving the partners feuding and in debt.
"One night they packed up and just left," said Eric Lemming, 35, shop foreman of the nearby Lakewood Iron Works.
In late March 2000, he picked the children up from school and vanished, according to court records. He later claimed that he took the children to Antigua with their mother's consent.
But his ex-wife said he went to pick the children up from school on a Monday afternoon and promised to return them to her by 5 that night -- and never showed up. She said he called later and said he was buying the children clothes at a Seattle K-Mart.
A short time after his disappearance, Mildred Muhammad was hospitalized in Tacoma. She told security officers at the hospital that John had called her there and threatened to kill her. She told the officers that she had obtained a restraining order against him after he left with the children.
On Aug. 31, 2001, the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office executed a court order and collected the couple's three children from Parkview Elementary School and Whatcom Middle School in Bellingham, about 100 miles north of Tacoma. The children had been enrolled under false names, according to Sheriff Dale Brandland.
Late last year, Muhammad was seen at the Seafarers Grill in Tacoma, trying to sell frozen steaks to customers, said Tony Jones, the chef. Jones said that Muhammad came in twice and management chased him away.
In February, Muhammad was arrested for stealing steaks from a Tacoma grocery store, according to court records. By September, he was in Trenton, N.J., negotiating to buy a Chevrolet Caprice for $250 from Sure Shot Auto Sales. It had 146,975 miles on the odometer.
John Lee Malvo or Lee Boyd Malvo? The name is the least of our mysteries.
From the moment the young man who called himself John Lee Malvo showed up at Bellingham High School in Washington more than a month into the school year in 2001, school officials had questions about him.
He didn't have transcripts.
He said he lived in a homeless shelter.
Two months passed, and the promised paperwork never arrived. So officials notified local police.
Malvo didn't exist on paper in his new home. He and his mother had been smuggled from their home in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, to Haiti and then onto a tugboat into Miami, where they illegally entered the United States, according to accounts they gave immigration officials.
It was in Bellingham, a city in the northwest corner of the state, that Malvo and his mother apparently became acquainted with John Allen Muhammad, the 41-year-old Gulf War veteran now being held on a federal firearms violation and being questioned about the Washington area killings. After launching a nationwide manhunt, law enforcement officers arrested Malvo and Muhammad early yesterday as they slept in a car at a rest stop near Frederick.