Muhammad's true son talks of love for father

Toronto Star/December 8, 2003
By Rosie Dimanno

Chesapeake, Va. -- Exhibit A: The biological son of John Allen Muhammad. Exhibit B: The pseudo-son of John Allen Muhammad.

It was a weird moment, in a trial that has had no shortage of them.

When they looked at each other in court yesterday, what did they see? A resemblance, an affinity, a rival?

Lindbergh Williams is 21 years old and a janitor in Baton Rouge, La., the only issue of Muhammad's first marriage, dissolved two decades ago. Lee Boyd Malvo is 18, Jamaican-born, and facing capital murder charges on crimes for which his surrogate father has already been sentenced to death.

The former affirmed his continuing love for his dad, despite Muhammad's conviction in the Beltway sniper killings that claimed 10 lives in the Washington, D.C., area. "Of course, he's my dad." The latter's feelings about the man who allegedly groomed him as a baby assassin - at least what he thinks about Muhammad today, one year removed from the shooting spree - remain a mystery. Unless Malvo takes the stand in his own defence at this trial, a huge strategic gamble and unlikely, we'll never really know the truth inside his heart.

As a witness for the defence, Lindbergh Williams presumably came here to help Malvo. But, if not quite conflicted, the true son clearly has opposing and compartmentalized attitudes toward his father.

"He's intelligent. He has a big heart. He loves kids.

"He was a manipulator. If he sees weakness, he'll take advantage of your weakness."

Lindbergh, himself the subject of a hostile custody battle between his parents - a recurring theme in Muhammad's relationships - met Malvo for the first time in the summer of 2002, some five weeks before the sniper shootings began.

Muhammad showed up in Baton Rouge with Malvo in tow. "He introduced him as my brother," Lindbergh told the court.

Lindbergh was not surprised and did not doubt the claim. "I knew the type of man my father was. I never questioned him about it."

It was an unannounced visit, with Muhammad and Malvo staying for five days. They parked their duffel bags - they had no car - at the home of Lindberg's aunt, Jackie. Jackie and Lindberg's mother, Carol, were sisters who'd married brothers - John and Edward Williams. John Williams would later join the Nation of Islam and change his name to John Allen Muhammad.

Lindbergh's purpose at this trial was to emphasize his father's manipulative, controlling nature. Muhammad as brainwashing Svengali is central to Malvo's defence, with his lawyers arguing the teenager was so thoroughly indoctrinated by Muhammad that he couldn't tell right from wrong, even if he did pull the trigger in many - but not necessarily all - of the shootings.

Lindbergh told the court how he went to visit his father in Tacoma, Wash., when he was 11 years old, after having no communication with Muhammad for nine years. He was supposed to stay for two weeks. Instead, he remained for the entire summer, three months, returning only when his mother initiated legal action as the custodial parent.

In the interim, said Lindbergh, his father had tried to turn him against his mother, and very nearly succeeded.

The boy was told his mother was abusive and negligent. "That's what he had me thinking. That's what he embedded in my head," said Lindbergh. "I'm 11 years old. What are you gonna believe?"

The father told him: "I'm not sending you home." And Lindbergh got to the point where he didn't want to return home either. His dad made him feel especially loved, showed him off to his friends. "Proud man. Head held high. Telling everybody, `This is my son.' Taking me to work with him every day."

But Carol Williams was not going to lose her boy.

"My mother was not gonna let him keep me," said Lindbergh. "She's a strong woman. She took me out of that situation. Once I got home, my mama decoded everything he'd told me."

Carol Williams recounted much the same story when she took the stand.

But even after this wretched experience, Williams said she was not displeased to see Muhammad when he suddenly showed up two summers ago in Baton Rouge. Muhammad was his old happy self, good-natured, visiting all their relatives. And she was impressed with the teenage boy, Malvo, whom Muhammad claimed was his son. "Everybody fell in love with him. Lee was the most well-mannered and respectful child ever. He'd sit down and read stories to the kids.

"You meet a person like that, you just want him to be with your family."

There were oddities, though. During the entire time Lee spent with her family, she never saw the youth eat anything except crackers.

Court has already heard Muhammad kept Malvo on a strict, bizarre diet. And in recorded "confession tapes" after his arrest, Malvo told investigators he'd fast for days before a shooting.

Carol Williams became worried, however, after reading a letter Malvo had left behind for her teenage niece, when he and Muhammad departed.

"The letter was crying out for help," Williams told the court.

Although she held the letter in her hand, Williams was not permitted to read it aloud and it was not formally entered as evidence. However, it's expected the contents - which reportedly suggest Malvo was trying to break away from Muhammad - will be revealed today when the niece takes the stand.

Williams said she and her sisters spent an entire day discussing the letter and trying to decide what to do about it. But, despite their efforts, they couldn't find out where Malvo and Muhammad had gone.

"We wanted to help this child."

Court also heard from a series of witnesses who knew Muhammad and Malvo when they'd been living at the Lighthouse Mission, a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wash., 35 kilometres from the Canadian border.

Muhammad had actually stayed at the mission in 2001 with his three young children from his second marriage. The kids, whom Muhammad had abducted, were seized and returned to their mother. But a few months later, Malvo turned up on the doorstep and was registered as Muhammad's son.

At the mission, the two kept mostly to themselves, moving their mattresses away from other residents. Malvo was enrolled in a local school and Muhammad walked him there every morning. Malvo was particularly reluctant to speak with others and would look to Muhammad for permission before doing so.

Ronald Todd, the mission chaplain, described the duo's relationship as "kind of a co-dependency. (Lee) looked up to John Muhammad for his identity and for direction in life."

Muhammad appeared loving and attentive but stern with Malvo, often giving him "the look" when the youth attempted conversation with others.

They spent hours together at a nearby coffeehouse, often playing chess, but mostly talking, talking, talking. Peter David, a coffeehouse employee, thought it strange to see "that kind of a bond" between a father and son. Malvo was warned to stop stealing honey off the table, and to quit making honey sandwiches with bread he brought to the coffeehouse. "I've never seen anyone eat that much honey before," said David.

Although Muhammad interacted with other regulars, Malvo rarely spoke to anyone else. And Muhammad did not welcome David's friendly overtures when he approached their table. "It seemed tense to me. It seemed that Muhammad was schooling Malvo."

Rev. Al Archer, executive director of the Lighthouse, wrote the letter that got Malvo enrolled in school. He watched the two go off to the local YMCA four or five times a week. And he observed how much Malvo tried to please Muhammad. "I saw John Muhammad as being a trainer and Lee as being a trainee."

But Archer became suspicious about Muhammad's occasional trips, couldn't understand where he was getting money. He went so far as phoning the FBI. They didn't seem interested.

It wasn't until Oct. 24 - the day of the Washington sniper arrests - that the FBI called him back.

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