The Sniper Trail Grows

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The murder spree that paralyzed some Washington suburbs for three weeks may have begun months earlier with a string of violent crimes stretching from Washington State to the Southeastern U.S. Police chiefs in Tacoma, Wash., and Baton Rouge, La., announced last week that the two men charged in the sniper shootings, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Malvo, 17, may be linked to other killings. These crimes, however, seem to have been committed at closer range than the Washington-area murders. Like the failed liquor-store robbery in Montgomery, Ala., that provided authorities with the case's first major break, the Baton Rouge murder appears to have been about money; the killers robbed a woman as she closed her beauty-supply shop. The Tacoma shooting took place at the home of a friend of Muhammad's ex-wife who had sided with her in their divorce. Task-force investigators have also tied the suspects to the shooting of a liquor-store clerk in Silver Spring, Md., more than two weeks before the sniper wave began.

As details of these far-flung crimes unfolded, the FBI was quietly trying to bolster its evidence against the suspects in the other Washington-area shootings. Law-enforcement sources tell Time that the FBI is testing saliva used to seal a letter left at the murder scene outside a Ponderosa steak house in Virginia for a match with either man's DNA. Meanwhile, more evidence is emerging of the lengths to which desperate authorities went in an effort to catch the snipers. At the height of the Beltway crisis, FBI sources tell TIME, the bureau's elite hostage-rescue team secretly paired with local SWAT teams and scattered around the region in unmarked cars. Clad in body armor and equipped with night-vision gear and secure radios, the groups were prepared to race to the scene of a shooting and arrest the killers. They never got their chance. But the increased use of these federal-local tactical teams may be one of the positive byproducts of the sniper case.