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‘He would act like I wasn’t there’

Onetime neighbors of John A. Muhammad recall the former Army sergeant as a taciturn, unfriendly man who sequestered his family behind closed doors and drawn blinds. By MSNBC’s Alex Johnson.
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Onetime neighbors of John A. Muhammad remembered the former Army sergeant Thursday as a taciturn, unfriendly man who sequestered his family behind closed doors and drawn blinds, emerging only to take his children to school or to work on the constant stream of cars he apparently repaired for a living at his home.

Muhammad, who used that name for many years before he legally had it changed from Williams, lived in Tacoma at least four times — during two postings with Company C of the 15th Engineers Battalion at Fort Lewis, about 40 miles south of Seattle, and twice more after he left the service in 1993.

Many men and women posted at Lewis and at nearby McChord Air Force Base return to Tacoma after they retire from the military, said Brian Ebersole, a former mayor of Tacoma. They typically settle down to a comfortable middle-class life and lend stability to the city, which like many military towns is sometimes afflicted with the petty crime he said was associated with any predominantly young, transient community.

But Muhammad was different. He was discharged in 1993, after which he moved around the country frequently, settling twice more in largely nondescript Tacoma neighborhoods.

Remembered on Procter Street
For someone who worked so hard to be invisible — usually refusing to even acknowledge neighbors’ greetings on the street — Muhammad, 41, attracted a lot of attention.

In the working-class Oakland-Madrona neighborhood near downtown, where FBI agents dug up the backyard of the dingy gray duplex he rented, Muhammad cut a striking figure as a tall, ramrod-straight man who was utterly uncommunicative with his neighbors, a mix of retired long-term homeowners and young members of the service who moved in and out of a few rental homes on South Proctor Street.

Muhammad lived with a young man believed to be Lee Malvo, the 17-year-old Jamaican with whom he was arrested Thursday morning in Myersville, Md., by the task force investigating the sniper shootings that killed 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area.

Neighbors said there were police cars outside Muhammad’s home on occasion, usually after someone had called 911 to report gunfire.

Room for target practice
Federal agents dug up a tree stump in the back yard of the home Wednesday, and police did not discourage speculation that Muhammad or the young man who lived with him may have used the stump for target practice.

The yard is almost precisely 25 meters long, the distance a shooting instructor said was the optimal range for perfecting the targeting of a high-powered rifle like the one found in Muhammad’s car in Maryland. Neighbors’ reports of hearing three shots in a short period appeared to dovetail with that procedure, in which the shooter fires three shots — one slightly left and one slightly right of center, followed by one directly on the target — to triangulate the crosshairs of the rifle scope with the bore sight.

In the more affluent neighborhood near Tacoma Mall where Muhammad lived with his wife and three children from 1994 until he moved out in 2000, neighbors said what drew their attention was not gunfire but a constant, annoying lineup of cars on the streets outside Muhammad’s home, where he would repair them.

Residents described the neighborhood, home to white and Latino families who settled there during a suburban explosion that attended the opening of the mall about 15 years ago, as closely knit and friendly. Many of the homes are bedecked with U.S. flags, and nearly all sport stickers proclaiming theirs to be a “Drugs/Crime Safe Street Neighborhood!”

Aloof and distant
Residents said Muhammad and his family were especially noteworthy because of their near-total avoidance of any contact with their neighbors. A handful of neighbors described him as polite, but all agreed that he was distant and uninterested in mingling.

Although he lives only two homes down from the small, neatly maintained green house the family rented, Jonathan King said he never exchanged a single word with Muhammad or his wife, who he and other neighbors said was always seen wearing a Muslim headdress, often with a veil.

“I was walking my dog and I said ‘hello’ or something, and he looked up at me and just continued what he was doing,” said King, who has lived on South Ainsworth Avenue for almost 15 years.

Lee Ann Terlage, who has lived for 14 years in a house across the street from the Muhammads’ former home, said she would occasionally pass Muhammad on the sidewalk, “and I would wave and smile and he would act like I wasn’t there.”

Terlage said the three children, all of whom appeared to be under 8 years old, were “normal kids who just wanted to play.” She said Muhammad and his wife kept a constant eye on them, peeking out from drawn blinds and calling them inside if they ventured too far.

Parade of vehicles
But while Muhammad was a quiet man, he was not a quiet presence on South Ainsworth Avenue. At times, a half-dozen or more cars would be left in front of his home and in a small street beside it, awaiting his repairs. Neighbors complained to police on occasion and said the parade of cars would temporarily slow, only to resume.

“They were all over the alley, and he always had his head in the hood,” said King, who said police cited one of the vehicles for an expired tag.

Neighbors said that at first, they approached Muhammad and asked if they could hire him to work on their cars. But he always refused, usually saying he did not have his boss’s permission. They said he neither identified the company he worked for nor explained why he needed permission to lend a hand on his time off.

In a response last year to a court filing in which his second wife, Mildred Denice Muhammad, sought a restraining order, Muhammad listed himself as owner and operator of “Express Car/Truck Mechanic Inc.”

Records on file with the Washington secretary of state’s office, however, do not appear to support Muhammad’s claim. The company was actually registered in Mildred Muhammad’s name, and its registration expired in March 1998, more than three years earlier.

Neighbors said the family’s obsession with privacy held even when their own relations exploded in acrimony. Although they knew that the Muhammads’ marriage had foundered and that the courts were involved, they said they never heard any arguments or yelling from the small green house on the corner.

Tacoma police would not comment on local news reports that Mildred Muhammad once accused her husband of kidnapping their children — two daughters, Salena and Taalibh, and a son, John Jr.

Shift to Islam
But in Whatcom County — where Muhammad and Malvo lived briefly late last year and early this year — Muhammad was served with a court order to turn over custody of the children in September 2001.

Former neighbors said this was about the time they noticed an even stronger apparent orientation toward militant Islam on Muhammad’s part. Pierce County records show that he adopted his Muslim name in April of last year.

Ebersole said Muhammad’s beliefs were highly atypical for Tacoma, where he was mayor from 1996 to 2000. Ebersole said Tacoma had a small Muslim population, which is well-accepted because “it’s a very progressive city.”

The idea that Tacoma might have incubated a violent Muslim radical struck a discordant note among its residents. The city is generally so quiet that the media horde that descended this week was viewed with as much amusement and excitement as irritation.

“It’s exciting, and everyone’s so nice,” said Maggie, a retired resident of the Oakland-Madrona neighborhood who did not want her last name used. “The Washington Post even called me at home last night.”

“It is pretty shocking to think that something like this can happen a couple of doors down,” said King, the former neighbor on South Ainsworth Avenue. “You think this sort of thing happens on the East Coast.”

Jerri, a clerk at a hotel near the Proctor Street house, said the case was dominating conversation.

“When all the trucks and the lights showed up, we thought it was the sniper at the house,” said Jerri, who also did not want her full name used.

“I mean, can you believe it?”