TACOMA, Wash., Oct. 26 (UPI) -- While prosecutors on the East Coast build their case against the two drifters accused in the D.C.-area sniper shootings, detectives in Tacoma were looking Saturday at a possible link to the unsolved slaying of a young woman last winter.
Police said sniper suspects John Muhammad and Lee Malvo may be connected to the shooting death of 21-year-old Keenya Cook. She was slain in February when she answered the door at the home of an aunt who had once worked as a bookkeeper at an auto body shop operated by Muhammad in the mid-1990s.
"We can't say he is a suspect, but at this point, he is a person of interest that we're going to look at," police spokesman Jim Mattheis told Seattle-area reporters Friday when it was revealed that Muhammad had had a falling-out with Cook's aunt, Isa Nichols.
Nichols reportedly had sided with Muhammad's former wife, Mildred Williams, in a testy divorce and child-custody battle in 1998; Nichols was not home on Feb. 16 when Cook apparently opened the door and was shot in the face.
"The aunt left to go shopping, came home, and found (Cook) laying inside the front door," John Reisch of the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
It was not known whether Cook had actually been the target of the assassin, but Nichols' husband, Army Staff Sgt. John Nichols, told reporters that he did not believe his niece had ever met Muhammad.
Mattheis said Friday that Muhammad's name had not come up in the initial investigation of Cook's homicide. However he was known to area law enforcement by virtue of a misdemeanor shoplifting citation issued four days before Cook's slaying. Also, a tip had been passed on to federal agents by an acquaintance that had heard Muhammad allegedly talking about using a sniper rifle to "pick off police officers."
"I raised the red flag three months ago," Harjee Singh told the Post-Intelligencer. "I told them what their intention was."
Malvo and Muhammad, a former soldier who had lived in Tacoma while stationed at nearby Fort Lewis, face a growing list of charges in the sniper series that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area.
Maryland filed charges Friday in six of the 10 slayings that occurred during a three-week period. Charges from Virginia and the District of Columbia were expected in the near future, and Alabama was seeking a grand jury indictment charging the pair in the Sept. 21 death of a Montgomery liquor store clerk and the wounding of another.
In the meantime, a New Jersey man who was part-owner of the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice allegedly used in the sniper shootings was arrested Saturday in Flint, Mich., as a material witness in the investigation. Nathaniel Osbourne, 26, is not considered a suspect in the shootings, however he could shed some light on Muhammad and Malvo and the possible motivations for the brutal crime spree they allegedly carried out together.
The Washington Post on Saturday published details of the three-page letter the sniper had left at the scene of a shooting at a restaurant parking lot in Ashland, Va., on Oct. 19.
A 37-year-old Florida man remains hospitalized after he was shot in the abdomen while walking to his car with his wife at his side after they had had a late dinner at a Ponderosa steakhouse.
The hand-written letter demanded a $10 million payment to be deposited in a bank account that would be accessed through a stolen credit card at "any ATM worldwide."
"Try to catch us withdrawing (money), at least you will have less body bags," the letter said. "But .... If trying to catch us now is more important, then prepare your body bags."
It also contained the postscript, "Your children are not safe at any time," words that sent a chill through the region until Muhammad and Malvo were arrested early Thursday at a highway rest stop near Frederick, Md., while asleep in their vehicle.
The snipers' possible motivation may have been more connected to money than had been earlier suspected, forensic psychologists who read the letter told the Post.
"I think the most important significance ... is that the extortion motive was more meaningful to the suspects than many have been willing to consider," said Dr. Michael Welner of New York University.
"The implausibility of the idea that they are just going to get $10 million, and that they will get carte blanche at any ATM around the world, is significant," he added. "The cunning attributed to these people was substantially overstated."
Ballistics evidence and DNA studies will be utilized in an attempt to link the two suspects to the 8-month-old killing that has stymied Tacoma police, officials said Friday.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)