Una James and her son, Lee Boyd Malvo, as she likes to remember him. Stone Phillips speaks with Una James, the mother of the accused sniper.
NBC News
updated 10/23/2003 5:33:29 PM ET 2003-10-23T21:33:29

The crime was about as cold-blooded as they come, a sniper taking deadly aim at innocent people going about their everyday lives, mowing a lawn, pumping gas, shopping, going to school. This woman watched the news like everyone else and wondered who was behind it — only to learn that one of the two men arrested in the D.C. sniper case was her teen-age son, Lee Malvo. Una James and her son came to this country illegally from the Caribbean hoping for a better life. How did things go so wrong? How did her son get mixed up with John Muhammad? She has never told her story to America, but now the mother of the young sniper suspect talks about the boy she loves, the mistakes she made, and the battle she lost.

There are photographs of Lee Boyd Malvo, the way his mother, Una James, prefers to remember him, before he was arrested and charged as a serial killer. But now, it’s a more recent image that haunts her, a portrait in pencil of the young sniper suspect. The artist is Malvo himself, one of his several sketches, the renderings as striking as the words that accompany them.

Looking at her son’s self-portrait, Una James still struggles with the question: Which Lee is it? The boy she remembers or the one she says was transformed by fellow sniper suspect, John Allen Muhammad.

Una James: “It was like a tug-of-war. Muhammad wouldn’t give up. And I’m challenging him to take back my son from him. Lee doesn’t decide for himself.”

Stone Phillips: “Total obedience.”

James: “Yes.”

Shortly after her son’s capture last October, following three weeks of terror and one of the biggest manhunts America’s ever seen, 38-year-old Una James was deported from Seattle, Wa., back to her native Jamaica. Broken-hearted and overwhelmed by the crush of media attention, she disappeared into the Jamaican countryside.

In the hills overlooking Kingston, “Dateline” sat down with her to hear her side of the story. It began the way any mother’s story might, with the enormous pride she felt for a child who once held so much promise.

James: “I used to think then that this child is going to make me proud one day.”

Phillips: “That’s how you felt about him.”

James: “Yes. He was thinking about being an astronaut.”

Phillips: “And he was artistic.”

James: “Yes. To me he was well balanced.”

But balance was never part of Malvo’s life at home. By age four, his father was no longer in the picture, and Una’s struggle to support herself and her child led to long periods of separation. She would leave Malvo in the care of others for months at a time as she looked for work on other islands. By all accounts Una’s absence took an emotional toll on young Lee Malvo.

Phillips: “So you weren’t there. You were off working?”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “His father?”

James: “Was not coming to see him.”

In just four years, Malvo stayed in six different homes and switched schools three times. Una drifted from job to job, island to island, but for as long as she can remember, there was only one place she longed to be.

Phillips: “America was a dream for you?”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “You wanted to go there?”

James: “Right. For myself and my son, yes.”

By June 1999, Una James arranged for her son, now 14, to leave Jamaica and join her on the island of Antigua. And it was there, the following year, they would meet a man who would fulfill their dreams. For Una James he was the ticket to America. For Lee Malvo he became the father figure he so desperately wanted. That man was 41-year-old John Muhammad, a gulf war veteran, convert to Islam and a father-on-the-run from Tacoma, Wa. Muhammad was hiding out in Antigua with his three children, after snatching them from his estranged wife. To support himself and the kids, he was selling fake IDs out of his house and smuggling anyone who could afford his $3,000 price, into the United States.

With Muhammad as her “travel agent,” Una would enter the U.S. illegally, in December 2000, with Malvo to follow three months later. But there was something about the American stranger that worried Una from the moment she laid eyes on him.

James: “So I said to my son, ‘This is like a demon.’”

Phillips: “This is a demon?”

James: “This is a demon.”

Phillips: “That was your sense of him?”

James: “That were my sense of him.”

Phillips: “Immediately?”

James: “Immediately, yes.”

Phillips: “John Muhammad’s ex-wife said about your son, ‘His life was over the moment he said, hi John. He just didn’t know it.’”

James: “It’s quite true.”

Malvo was attending a Seventh Day Adventist school in Antigua but was no longer staying with the friends in the house where Una had left him.

Phillips: “While you’re away...”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “Lee moved in with Mohammed?”

James: “With Mohammed. Right. So I was pretty angry, not happy with the whole situation.”

Una knew very little about exactly what went on between Muhammad and Malvo, but one woman did. Keshna Douglas’s family lived in the house and she witnessed first-hand the growing bond between the teenager from Jamaica and her family’s American house guest. She has never talked about it publicly, until now.

Douglas: “They were like father and son. There was a strong relationship between them.”

Phillips: “Muhammad gave him a lot of attention?”

Douglas: “Yes, he did.”

Keshna Douglas also witnessed Malvo’s conversion to Islam. But there was something else perhaps even more powerful than religion that took hold over Una James’s 14-year-old boy, something with which a mother, struggling to make ends meet, simply could not compete.

Douglas: “It seemed to me like financially, things that he never had, he now has the opportunity to get it, you know, just like that.”

Phillips: “Things like?”

Douglas: “A lot of name brand shoes, bags, whatever. You just name it. And he had a handle over John’s money. He would keep John’s money.”

Phillips: “So he had money really for the first time in his life.”

Douglas: “Yes.”

Phillips: “And John would let him take some of the money to buy things for himself?”

Douglas: “Yes, he would.”

Faith, finance and a father figure — suddenly Malvo seemed to have everything that had been missing from his life, compliments of John Muhammad. In Florida, Una was busy building a new life: renting an apartment, working at restaurants, and saving for her son’s arrival. But her phone calls back to Antigua were troubling, her son barely talking, Muhammad refusing to speak.

James: “So it was like a warfare with Muhammad and myself.”

Phillips: “Warfare between you and Muhammad over Lee?”

James: “Right.”

The three months Malvo was supposed to spend in Antigua turned into six. It was not until June, 2001, that Muhammad finally smuggled Lee Malvo into the United States to rejoin his mother. But Muhammad refused to loosen his grip on Una’s son, and Malvo’s loyalties seemed to have changed.

James: “The child that I left in Antigua, that’s not the child who came back to me in the United States. It was two different persons.”

Phillips: “He wanted to be with Muhammad?”

James: “Want to be with Muhammad. And I was saying to him, ‘Why? I have you alone, you are my only child. And the little that I can give to you now, it’s not the best,’ but I was saying to him, ‘Good things come to those that wait.’ And if we’re here we now in our circumstance it’s going to take time, sacrifices, but it will work out.”

Phillips: “You had a couple of jobs. And Lee was in school. Things were beginning to work out.”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “But he was thinking about Muhammad?”

James: “Muhammad, yes.”

Phillips: “And Muhammad was calling, and calling and calling.”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “So the connection continued.”

James: “Continues, yes.”

Malvo had been in Ft. Myers for just four months when he disappeared from his mother’s apartment. Records show that on October 20, 2001 he signed-in at a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wa., where Muhammad was now living. The teenager quickly assumed the role of both son and soldier, recruited by John Muhammad for a mission. Una says she had no idea what Muhammad was up to, and a call only heightened the mystery.

James: “I eventually got to talk to him on the phone and I said to him, ‘Why is it you need my child?’”

Muhammad told her he had a job to do and he couldn’t rely on a “coke-head” to do it.

James: “He said, ‘I gotta use a intelligent child to do what I have to do.’”

Phillips: “He can’t use a coke-head?”

James: “No.”

Phillips: “For what?”

James: “That was my fear, for what I don’t know. I became more furious, more afraid. My child is in trouble.”

Soon, all communication was cut off. So Una packed up her belongings, boarded a bus in Ft. Myers and crossed the country. On December 14, 2001, she arrived in Bellingham. Una went to the police station, and pleaded for help to get her son back from the man she feared.

Malvo was returned to her, but shortly after, they were detained as illegal immigrants. Mother and son were eventually released pending deportation. That’s when Una says she realized her son also feared Muhammad.

James: “He’s saying to me, ‘Mom, we were being followed. And if I don’t go, they’ll kill you.’ That is the word I remember he said to me.”

Phillips: “And he said somebody would kill you?”

James: “Yes, that’s what he said.”

Phillips: “Do you think he feared for his own life as well as yours?”

James: “Well, I knew he’s worried with, ‘Mom, I have to go, because I’m in it.’ I said, ‘In what?’ I said. ‘No one can’t force you to do what is against your will.’”

Phillips: “And did he seem afraid?”

James: “Yes, he had fears.”

Phillips: “That whatever he had gotten into—”

James: “Right.”

Phillips: “—he could not get out of.”

James: “Get out of it.”

Within a matter of days, Malvo left Una again, never to return. But there was a chance encounter on a city bus in Seattle. Una says she clutched onto her son by his coat and tried desperately to pry him away from Muhammad.

Phillips: “You literally grabbed him.”

James: “Yes, I hold him. And I say, ‘I want to talk to you.’ And it was like a battle there then. And I remember saying to him, ‘You’re not running from me who’s your mother. You are running down your grave, you need to stop.’ I said, ‘How can you be running down a man you don’t know and I’m your mother from birth? How can I be that person, that is wrong?’ I say, ‘You need to think.’ And I remember yelling out.”

Phillips: “You were yelling this after him—”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “—as he was running after Mohammed.”

James: “Mohammed.”

In the months leading up to the sniper attacks, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were honing their skills with a Bushmaster rifle at firing ranges, including one in Tacoma, Wa. With Muhammad now playing both father and drill sergeant, the teenager from Jamaica was consumed with intense paramilitary training. No longer in touch with her son, Una says she made a final attempt to seek help in getting him back, pleading with social workers at a Seattle hospital.

James: “They were saying that I need to see a psychiatrist. I said, ‘No, I’m not being sick. I know my son is in danger and he needs help.’ And I be sitting in the chair there for hours crying, ‘I need help for my son.’”

Phillips: “You felt no one was listening.”

James: “Yes. No one was listening.”

Last October, the sniper attacks began in Montgomery County Maryland. In the days that followed, the world watched in horror as more innocent victims were targeted.

By October 22, 13 people had been shot, 10 of them killed. Through it all, Una, like everyone else, had stared at news reports in disbelief and wondered, who could be pulling the trigger? Finally, police got the break they were waiting for. A highway rest stop in Maryland was surrounded as SWAT teams closed in on a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice. That’s when, Una’s phone rang in Washington state. Her immigration lawyer broke the news of her son’s arrest.

Phillips: “What went through your mind?”

James: “Just total devastation.”

Phillips: “Did you believe it when you first heard it?”

James: “It’s hard to believe.”

Phillips: “Do you think he was brainwashed?”

James: “Yes, to a certain extent, yes.”

Brainwashed, coerced, or willing partner? We may never know for sure, but Una James believes all three could explain why her son left her to follow John Muhammad.

The two sniper suspects would soon be charged with multiple counts of capital murder. According to investigators, Muhammad and Malvo are linked to 13 shootings in the Washington, D.C., area and a total of 20, nationwide.

Phillips: “This crime is almost incomprehensible.”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “Driving around in a car, firing shots from the trunk at innocent people. How do you explain that your son could have been involved in this?”

James: “Well, he was manipulated by Mohammed, been used. And he could only do that because he find that this is an obedient child.”

Phillips: “But as obedient as, as he was, surely he knew the difference between right, right and wrong?”

James: “You think about Mohammed, his influence over that child.”

Phillips: “Forty-one years old.”

James: “Yes.”

Phillips: “With a 17-year-old.”

James: “Yes.”

But while she holds Muhammad responsible for what has happened to her son, Una James struggles with something even more painful.

Phillips: “Do you blame yourself for any of this?”

James: “I would say yes. Because there’s a responsibility goes with parenthood. So, yes. I said yes, I blame myself for looking back. I said if I never had left him in Antigua.”

Phillips: “In part, creating the void.”

James: “Right, right.”

Phillips: “Into which Mohammed moved?”

James: “Yes.”

LETTERS FROM PRISON

During our time with Una James in Jamaica she shared with us some letters she has received from her son in jail. They included never-before-seen drawings and the words that go with them offer a glimpse into Lee Malvo’s mind as he awaits trial, and if convicted, a possible death sentence. A letter dated May 26, seven months after his arrest, Malvo tries to comfort his heartbroken mother, but makes no apologies:

“I’m holding up fine. Take care of yourself... To Mom. Love, honor and peace. Take care. Your son, Lee. Love always.”

As we read the letters together, Una often found herself at a loss for words. But the look on her face spoke volumes about the pain and regret she feels. On March 13, Malvo sent another self-portrait.

Phillips: “So this is a drawing he has done of himself in his cell.”

James: “Right.”

Phillips: “With the prayer rug.”

James: “Um-hm.”

Phillips: “Koran next to the prayer rug.”

James: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “On his shorts, ‘Fairfax County Jail,’ I guess is what that is.”

James: “Okay.”

More words from the accused sniper, with a chilling reference to bullets and fear:

“Mind over matter. Weak minded people are easily influenced. Strong minded people you can’t break their will. We stand tallest when we stoop to help others. They don’t fear bullets. They fear the unforeseen and the unseen. Truth be told we all fear the unseen.”

James: “Makes me sad.”

In another letter, dated March 17, Malvo seems to hint that, in his mind, there was a purpose to what he calls his “indecence.”

“To Ms. Una James, my mommy forever... You called into existence a strong mind. I hope some day you may understand completely that you deserve no blame, nor should my indecence disturb thy peace. But I understand that I am part of thee and holding up fine. I love, respect and honor you. Never, ever forget. Though you may not understand how my actions relate or explain my respect I hope that someday you may understand. Please cry no more.”

As we looked at the letters, Una admitted that she had yet to respond to any of them, or to place even a single call to her son in jail. Only recently did she finally speak to him, a 15-minute telephone conversation during which, Una says, her son cried.

While she waits for her son’s trial, Una continues to fight depression and suggestions in the media that she was a “negligent mother.” She remains in the Kingston area, unemployed, struggling to make ends meet.

As much as she wishes this nightmare would go away, Una knows there are 20 families scattered across America who wish her dream of coming to America with her son had remained just that, a dream.

Phillips: “Is there anything you want to say to the families? Those who were killed?”

James: “Yes. I am saying to them: It’s horrible, it’s terrible, it’s devastating. And my sympathy goes out to all of those who lose their loved ones, even to the people of America in general. ”

Under the terms of her deportation, Una James cannot re-enter the United States for five years. She will need special permission just to come back for her son’s trial. The last time she came, she lost her son to John Muhammad. This time, she could lose him for good.

Phillips: “Do you think the pain will ever ease?”

James: “I don’t, I don’t think so. Not in this situation, no. But I am going to hold on. And I’m asking the good God above to give me the energy, the strength and the courage to hold on. And that he might make me to be that happy mother I was hoping to be one day.”

Lee Malvo and John Muhammad are scheduled to go on trial separately this fall. Malvo’s lawyers say they plan to call Una James as a witness, but it’s not yet clear whether she’ll be allowed back in the country. The defense team has arranged for one of Malvo’s former teachers in Jamaica to visit him in jail, and they’ve arranged phone conversations with others including Malvo’s father. It’s all part of an on-going effort to reconnect the teenage suspect to his past and break what Una James calls Muhammad’s spell over her son.

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