The growing rage of John Muhammad

For weeks, police say, John Muhammad, 41, and Lee Malvo, 17, terrorized the Washington, D.C., suburbs with a methodical shooting spree that claimed 10 lives and left three people grievously wounded. Who are these men?

What was their motivation?

So far, neither Muhammad nor Malvo is talking to investigators, and much about the crimes remains unknown. But the story of Muhammad’s life hints at an answer. A man who began life in the humblest of circumstances, Muhammad successfully struggled to carve out a career, a niche in society, and a family. Along the way, he demonstrated a formidable self-discipline that impressed many, as well as flashes of a controlling, cold fury. In the past three years, a series of setbacks left Muhammad homeless, cut off from his children, and openly fantasizing about violence and revenge.

Where is he from?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Muhammad was born John Allen Williams in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve 1960. Abandoned by his father, he was raised by an aunt after his mother died of cancer. He struggled with learning disabilities in school, but excelled at football and other sports. After graduating in 1978, he enlisted in the National Guard and worked as a carpenter and a welder. In the Guard, Muhammad was court-martialed twice for flying into rages at superiors. “He had a real short fuse,” said his former platoon sergeant.

Was he a loner?

Quite the opposite. Many say that at his best, Muhammad was friendly, helpful, even gregarious. “He wasn’t a quiet type,” his estranged second wife told The Seattle Times. “He liked to talk.” A handsome man with an intense demeanor, Muhammad had a string of girlfriends and was married twice. The first marriage, in 1981, to his high school sweetheart, lasted three years and produced one son, Lindbergh. After they separated, Muhammad made a new start. He joined the Army, converted to Islam, and began living with Mildred Green, who had followed him from Louisiana to Fort Lewis in Washington state. They married in 1988 and had three children. Friends say they were a “model family.’’

What kind of soldier was he?

Solid but unremarkable. A sergeant in a combat-engineer unit, Muhammad served in the Middle East during the Gulf War. There, according to published accounts, his unit helped destroy Iraqi rockets filled with the nerve gas sarin. In the Army, Muhammad attained the “expert” level as a marksman with the M-16 rifle, which required that he hit 36 of 40 targets at ranges between 50 and 300 meters. The Bushmaster rifle found in his trunk is a civilian version of the M-16. He was discharged from the Army in 1994, with his records giving no reason for his departure. When he left the Army, he left the organization that had structured his life.

What did he do as a civilian?

He floundered. With a friend, Felix Strozier, Muhammad briefly ran a karate school in Tacoma, Wash. When it folded, Muhammad opened an auto-repair business. It too went under. The problems weighed heavily on the couple, and in 1999 Mildred filed for divorce.

How did he react?

He became menacing. Throughout his life, when faced with adversity, Muhammad has reacted by attempting to exert control over those around him. He threatened Mildred, and in March 2000 she got a restraining order. “I am afraid of John,” she wrote in a court document. “He is behaving very, very irrational. Whenever he does talk to me, he always says that he’s going to destroy my life.” Ten days later, Muhammad took their children and vanished, hiding on the Caribbean island of Antigua. There, he met a Jamaican teen named Lee Malvo, who fell in with Muhammad’s family.

Why didn’t Muhammad stay there?

He apparently found it too hard to make a living. “Antigua seemed pretty backward,” he wrote a friend. Muhammad returned to Washington state and wound up in a homeless shelter in Bellingham with his kids. Malvo would later follow him there. Though homeless, police say, Muhammad raised money by smuggling people into the U.S. But at the shelter, child-welfare officials finally caught up with Muhammad, and Mildred won legal custody of the couple’s children. In September 2001, she took them into hiding. The loss of his children crushed Muhammad, leaving him filled with fury at his powerlessness. “The system could do nothing to help John,” his lawyer, John Mills, told The Washington Post. “He banged his head against the wall for three months with no success.”

Was this the turning point?

Apparently. After this, Muhammad was increasingly fascinated with violence. An Army buddy says Muhammad spoke of making a silencer for his rifle, asking, “Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?” A man who lifted weights with Muhammad and Malvo, Harjeet Singh, says that Muhammad ranted about killing policemen and shooting gasoline trucks to make them explode. Singh also says that Muhammad spoke favorably of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “He said that it should have happened a long time ago.”

When did the killing begin?

Police now suspect it began in Washington state. In February, someone shot and killed the niece of a woman who had helped Mildred track Muhammad down. A few months later, Muhammad and Malvo went to Louisiana, where Muhammad’s relatives said he seemed gaunt and secretive. By early September, they were in Camden, N.J., where Muhammad bought a blue Chevrolet Caprice for $250.

When did they go to Maryland?

On Sept. 21, police say, Muhammad and Malvo allegedly held up a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., and shot two women in cold blood; one died. By October, the duo had moved on to Montgomery County, Md. One night, while the sniper’s spree was underway, a neighbor of Mildred’s noticed a car parked outside the home where she and the children now make their lives. It was a blue Chevrolet Caprice. The man at the wheel, the neighbor said, just sat there in silence, staring at the house.

The ‘son’ who called him sir

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.