Federal charges block local police questions of sniper suspects

Thursday, October 31, 2002

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- Questioning of the two sniper suspects was halted when federal agents took custody of the pair, possibly preventing investigators from obtaining information about the shooting spree, a local law enforcement source complained Wednesday.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio disputed that, saying neither suspect was "yielding any useful information." He also said federal law required they be taken before a federal magistrate once they asked for a lawyer.

The dispute was one of the very earliest clashes among prosecutors over which jurisdiction would take the lead role in pursuing a case against John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17.

After a three-week manhunt covering the entire Washington region, Muhammad and Malvo were arrested Oct. 24 at a Maryland rest stop on a federal charge and were questioned that morning by members of the multi-agency sniper task force.

Later that day, after investigators received calls from DiBiagio, the two were taken into federal custody, the local law enforcement official said.

Task force investigators complained they were trying to develop a rapport and may have been able to obtain valuable information.

Keeping quiet

However, a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pair were providing little information to interrogators and invoked their right not to speak without an attorney.

The Justice Department official said Malvo would not even admit he was in the car with Muhammad when the two were arrested, saying only things like "I'm hungry" or "Leave me alone so I can get something to eat."

Task force officials complained that the federal government's decision ended potentially valuable interrogations, the local law enforcement source said.

"He was talking," the source said of Muhammad. "There was certainly a great deal of information that remained to be gleaned from him."

DiBiagio, however, told task force investigators that he had orders from the White House and Justice Department to take the suspects, the source said.

Muhammad and Malvo did not give any indication they were prepared to confess, the source said.

DiBiagio and the FBI issued statements Wednesday, denying the White House was involved in the decision to take Muhammad and Malvo into custody.

Gary Bald, the FBI's special agent in charge, said he was in touch with DiBiagio throughout Oct. 24 and "there was never any reference to taking any action as a result of Justice Department or White House pressure or requests."

DiBiagio said he advised local investigators that federal law required Malvo, a juvenile, be brought before a federal magistrate "forthwith" and Muhammad "without unnecessary delay."

Montgomery Deputy State's Attorney John McCarthy called the U.S. Attorney's office at 3 p.m. that day to say Muhammad had asked for a lawyer. At that point "questioning had to cease" and the suspect had to be taken before the magistrate, DiBiagio said.

But the local law enforcement source said the task force wanted the government to dismiss the federal gun charge, a misdemeanor, and allow Montgomery County to file six murder charges against the suspects. That request was denied, the source said.

Responding to DiBiagio's statement Wednesday, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said McCarthy's call was to say Muhammad and Malvo were on their way to Baltimore for a federal hearing, not that Muhammad invoked his right to a lawyer.

Whatever the case, Robert Cleary, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey who headed the Unabomber case, said: "It is never good when prosecuting authorities are at odds with each other. It can only serve to hurt the case."

It can also damage the public perception that justice is being served, said Nicholas Gess, a former Clinton administration Justice Department official.

"It's important from the public's perspective that they have confidence there is unity among the people doing this," he said. "I hope if there is squabbling, it's short-lived."

The interrogation account, first reported in Wednesday's New York Times, illustrates the rising tensions between federal and local authorities over who will prosecute Muhammad and Malvo first.

Muhammad was charged in federal court Tuesday under weapons and extortion laws that could bring the death penalty. Prosecutors in Maryland and Virginia have also filed state murder charges against both. Authorities in Alabama have charged them with a slaying last month, and the two are suspects in a Washington state killing earlier this year.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said negotiations continue on which jurisdiction will try the first case.

During the investigation, authorities were able to cobble together a task force from dozens of federal agencies and local police forces. The relative unity of the task force crumbled soon after the arrests.

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