The need for coordinated investigations

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

A good deal of soul searching has taken place in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to find out how much various government agencies knew and why that information wasn't used to possibly thwart the madmen's plans.

With the recent arrest of two men accused of sniper killings in the Washington, D.C., area, the same questions are being asked: What did authorities know in the weeks and months prior to the shootings? How was that information processed? And could some of the information have been used to prevent the killings?

As one experienced homicide investigator said, it's easy to second-guess and point fingers at mistakes in such intense and complex cases.

But others who are familiar with police investigations say this case took too long to solve.

John Muhammad and John Malvo face numerous charges in several states in the wake of their arrests for the serial shootings that plagued the area around our nation's capital for days. Authorities say the big break in the investigation came when a caller -- apparently one of the snipers -- contacted police and suggested they check for connections to an earlier murder-robbery in Montgomery, Ala. That search found a fingerprint that matched one in a national database belonging to Malvo.

But as long as 18 months ago the FBIwas given information about the suspicious behavior of Muhammad and Malvo.

Just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Muhammad moved into a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wash., with his two children. He was involved at the time in a custody battle with his ex-wife. Muhammad starting getting telephone calls from a travel agent. As the director of the shelter put it, the homeless don't usually have travel agents working for them -- which is one reason he reported his concerns. Another reason was because, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the awareness and vigilence of most Americans was heightened. Sometime later, Malvo also moved into the shelter.

But the FBI never followed up on reports it received, even though it was told Muhammad and Malvo had been overheard talking about a sniper attack.

Missed chances like these emphasize weaknesses in how major crimes are investigated, some officials say. They cite the lack of easily accessible computerized databases, not enough well-trained police and a lack of coordination in complex investigations.

In many areas of the country -- Southeast Missouri included -- many of these concerns have been addressed by the formation of major-case squads. Whenever a crime occurs that requires the assistance of several agencies, the major-case squad is activated. This provides manpower and a chain of command that both coordinates and simplifies the process.

A similar process involving the sharing of FBIinformation could have made a difference when the snipers were shooting innocent victims last month.

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