WASHINGTON – The suspected Washington-area sniper is a former Army combat engineer who was a good marksman with a hot temper.
It flared in threats he made to his ex-wife in 2000 and led to his court martial for striking a sergeant in the head while in the Louisiana Army National Guard in 1982.
John A. Muhammad, 41, didn’t have any special sniper training, but a federal government source said he attained the top ranking of an “expert” marksman with an M-16, the standard-issue rifle that fires the same .223 caliber rounds used in the sniper case.
If, as alleged, the former Louisiana and Washington state resident took the lives of 10 people and gravely injured three others in shootings that terrorized the area around Washington, it remains unclear what exactly drove him.
Muhammad was born John A. Williams on Dec. 31, 1960. He changed his last name sometime after he converted to Islam as an adult.
He enlisted in the Louisiana National Guard in 1978, when he was 17. A former commander, Rafael Miranda, 41, of New Orleans, remembered that Muhammad would go to a rifle range a couple of times a year to train with M-16s and M-60 medium machine guns. But as a marksman, “I don’t remember him being anything special,” Miranda said.
All soldiers receive basic training in marksmanship from about 50 to 300 yards.
Assigned to the 769th Engineer Battalion at Baton Rouge, La., he ran into trouble in apparent back-to-back incidents in August 1982.
On Aug. 5, he failed to report for post police duty, for which he was fined $100 and demoted. Then, on Aug. 6, he struck Sgt. Cornelius Scott in the head above the left eye, while Scott was helping to pay battalion members.
The court martial documents don’t explain why Muhammad, who then went by Williams, hit Scott. Muhammad was sentenced to seven days confinement for the assault. Witnesses to the two-decade-old event couldn’t remember Thursday why that fight started, but they said Muhammad had a short fuse.
“He seemed to have some problems with authority,” said Miranda, his former commander. “He would just get mad at silly little things and go into like a rage.”
He was brought up on absenteeism charges after he didn’t show up for several drills, Miranda said.
He had particular problems with his platoon sergeant, Donald Wilsdon, according to Miranda. Wilsdon, who lives in Baton Rouge, La., recalled that he would issue equipment to
Muhammad, and Muhammad would later return without the equipment and ask for more.
“When I would say no, he would lose it, holler and refuse to do what he was told,” Wilsdon said.
Muhammad also was charged with taking a tape measure belonging to another Guardsman, but was acquitted on that charge.
Muhammad married Carol Williams in 1981 in Baton Rouge. They separated four years later and were divorced in 1988. His ex-wife still lives in Baton Rouge. Law enforcement officers
told her to refrain from talking to the media, her lawyer Gail Horne told reporters Thursday.
In July 1985, Muhammad left the Louisiana National Guard and enlisted three months later in the regular Army, joining the 15th Engineer Battalion at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma, Wash.
Muhammad served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was honorably discharged from the Army in April 1994. He then spent one year with the Oregon National Guard, leaving as a sergeant in April 1995.
He had remarried in 1988 to Mildred Denise Green. Muhammad filed for divorce in December 1999, and the couple separated in February 2000.
She moved with her three children to her sister’s townhouse in Clinton, Md., outside of Washington, D.C., in early 2001.
Before they separated, he and his wife worked together in an auto-repair business that Muhammad owned called Express Car/Truck Mechanic. They regularly attended a local mosque,
according to court records. They had three children: John Allen Williams Jr., 12, Salena Denise Williams, 10, and Taalibah Aanisah Muhammad, 9.
“John and Mildred and the children had a model family picture,” a family friend, Anthony G. Muhammad, wrote in a court filing Oct. 12, 2001.
But the marriage began to unravel, and violent incidents ensued. “All that time, she said she wanted me out of the house,” Muhammad wrote about his wife in a petition to gain custody of
The couple had a violent argument in February 2000, when Muhammad said he confronted his wife about an affair. After that he took the children to the island of Antigua for several
months. But Muhammad said he left Antigua because it was too backward. It had “no Internet or other technological advances,” he wrote.
He settled in Bellingham, Wash., a small city between Seattle and the Canadian border, and enrolled the children in Parkview Elementary. But Mildred Muhammad was awarded
temporary custody of the children in June 2000, and court records say the children were seized later by the Bellingham Police Department.
She obtained a restraining order against Muhammad on June 21, 2000. A Tacoma court awarded her custody of the children.
“I am in fear for my life,” she wrote when she filed the restraining order. “He has made threats to destroy me. I am frightened for my children’s safety.”
She told hospital security officers that Muhammad “can make a weapon out of anything” and that he was “skilled in hand-to-hand fighting.”