Acquaintances Split On 'Brainwashing'

Malvo's Mind-Set At Heart of Defense

Washington Post/November 17, 2003
By Serge F. Kovaleski

Chesapeake, Va. -- Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad crisscrossed the United States after meeting in the Caribbean, encountering school principals, shelter directors, old friends and new acquaintances. And each noticed the dynamic between the two: Muhammad was in charge.

But opinions about the degree to which the young Jamaican was dominated by Muhammad vary significantly among the people who came across the drifters between the time they met in 2000 and when they were arrested in October 2002 and charged as the Washington area snipers.

Some say Malvo changed completely after falling under the spell of a charismatic but devious man. Others are more benign in their assessments, using terms such as firm parenting to describe the relationship. One woman who encountered them in Washington state last year even said Malvo seemed like a peer, playfully coaxing Muhammad into tasting a cheese quesadilla at a local shop.

Malvo's attorneys have adopted the most sinister view of that relationship and are using it as the centerpiece of their strategy to save their client's life. Malvo, 18, is on trial here on capital murder charges in the shooting death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, outside a Home Depot store in Fairfax County on Oct. 14, 2002. His attorneys claim that he was temporarily insane during last year's sniper shooting because of "total and complete dominance" by Muhammad, rendering Malvo unable to differentiate between right and wrong.

"Lay folks may use the term 'brainwashed.' . . . Specifically, it is the defense of indoctrination," Craig S. Cooley, one of Malvo's attorneys, said last week. Referring to his client, who was 17 during the sniper attacks, Cooley asserted, "He is a very trusting young man. But that trust in the wrong hands is dangerous."

The defense team faces the challenge of trying to convince a jury that the Persian Gulf War veteran transformed Malvo into an acolyte, a killer protege who lost his capacity for sound judgment and free will as he succumbed to the psychological grip of his older companion. At the core of the defense's case -- it will rely on more than 40 out-of-state witnesses -- lie Malvo's vulnerabilities.

In interviews last week with some of those potential witnesses and others who met the pair, Malvo was described as an impressionable kid who longed for a full-time parent. But how much their observations will help the defense diverges substantially.

One of the people who encountered Malvo and Muhammad early in their relationship grew concerned about the effect Muhammad was having on the "smart, polite youngster." Rosalind Aaron, principal of the Seventh-day Adventist School in Antigua, which Malvo attended from September 1999 to March 2001 before abruptly dropping out, said Malvo followed Muhammad's bad guidance.

In December 2000, Malvo moved in with Muhammad in Antigua after his mother, Una James, left the island for Fort Myers, Fla., allegedly having paid Muhammad for bogus travel documents. Soon after bonding with Muhammad, Malvo -- a standout student who had excelled in the sciences and technical drawing and played cricket -- seemed less interested in school, Aaron said. His grades fell by as much as 10 points and his near-perfect attendance record deteriorated as he missed classes for days and sometimes a week at a time. Students and neighbors often saw Malvo engaged in grueling outdoor workouts under Muhammad's supervision.

And Malvo shocked his teachers by suddenly espousing the tenets of Islam. Muhammad had converted to the Islamic faith 16 years earlier.

"I firmly believe that he was influenced by Muhammad in a strong way," said Aaron, who has been called by the defense to testify at Malvo's trial. "He was changed by Muhammad over a period of time. It clouded his judgment."

Aaron added that Muhammad's "influence was so forceful that if not for the gentleman, [Malvo] would have finished high school in a high bracket. . . . He was still a respectful boy, but different."

Malvo flew to the United States with Muhammad in May 2001 and was reunited with James in Fort Myers. But in late October, the teenager left, turning up via bus at the Lighthouse Mission homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wash. -- where Muhammad was living.

Rory Reublin, resident manager of the Lighthouse Mission who also has been called by the defense, said he thought it was peculiar how Muhammad rarely let Malvo out of his sight. At the shelter, he said, Muhammad directed the pair to sleep on mattresses on the cafeteria floor at the other end of the room from where 20 or so other residents slept. During the several months that they stayed at the shelter on and off, Malvo seemed downcast and rarely spoke to anyone except Muhammad.

"I don't remember ever seeing Lee smile, and I never saw him talking to any of the other residents," Reublin said. "Whenever the two were in the building, they were always together and very secretive. . . . Lee was always standing behind Muhammad or next to him, waiting. Lee spoke softly and slowly but never really said more than two or three words at a time."

Reublin could recall only one instance in which Malvo struck up a conversation with other residents. It was during dinner one night at the shelter, when Malvo engaged in a conversation with other residents at the table. Muhammad was still in the serving line. But when Muhammad sat down, he threw the teenager an icy stare that muted him immediately, Reublin remembered. Malvo then dropped his head and kept eating.

"It was a look that said, 'Shut your mouth,' " Reublin said. "I thought to myself, 'He really has this kid under control. He runs the shop.' After that, Muhammad started talking. Malvo did not say a word for 10 or 15 minutes."

Reublin, who had worked with Jamaicans for 25 years in South Florida, found another thing odd: Malvo had no accent from his native island.

Robert Holmes, a former Army buddy of Muhammad's who let the two stay at his Tacoma, Wash., house several times, said he did not see Muhammad control or order the teenager around in any unusual way. Rather, he said, Malvo seemed taken by Muhammad in a way that reminded him of the way some are drawn to a charismatic politician.

"If you ask if [Malvo] was insane, you have to remember that elegant Nazi speaker," said Holmes, who also has been called to testify for the defense. "Even though most of the German people were sane, they were seduced by Hitler."

Holmes found Malvo hard to gauge because the teenager talked little around the house. But he said that Muhammad and Malvo acted like father and son and referred to each other as such, which Holmes knew was not true.

He said that Malvo was like a surrogate son to Muhammad, who had lost his own children in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, and that the teenager exuded a need for love and approval from his older companion.

Back in Bellingham, the two drifters spent about five days in the spring of 2002 living at a townhouse rented by four college classmates. One of the students had met Muhammad at the local YMCA and invited him to stay at the house.

Tim Saur, one of the college seniors at the time, said he viewed Muhammad as an intensely focused and caring parent of a teenager who was reserved but courteous and had few social skills. The two visitors brought provisions that were particular to their vegetarian diet, devouring spinach leaves out of a plastic bag, snacking on buttered white bread and saltines and drinking purified water. At night, they shared a futon in the living room.

"Malvo was definitely taking his cues from Muhammad, everything from his way of thinking to diet and exercise," Saur said. "They lived everything together." But Saur saw nothing sinister in it.

"I saw it as good but firm parenting," he said.

Though Muhammad did most of the talking, Malvo sometimes chimed in to agree or disagree. Saur, who has not been called to testify, also got the impression that Malvo was more at ease when Muhammad was in his company. "If he was around Muhammad, he would join in the conversations more easily," he said.

Malvo was even less communicative when the twosome showed up one night in the summer of 2002 at the home of one of Muhammad's cousin's, Charlene Anderson, in Baton Rouge, La., where Muhammad was reared.

He initially told her that Malvo was his son. "I asked him his name, but I didn't understand him," recalled Anderson, who testified for the prosecution at Muhammad's ongoing trial in Virginia Beach. Malvo uttered little else during the one-night stay. Later that evening, Muhammad told the youngster to leave the kitchen and then spun a wild tale to Anderson about how Malvo really was a "highly trained" member of a covert team searching for stolen explosives.

Anderson, a university police officer who has been subpoenaed to testify for Malvo's defense, eventually dismissed the story. She said that Muhammad briefly ordered the boy around at her house and that Malvo was obedient. But it did not rise to the level of domination or control, she said.

"He told him to go sit down [in the living room] . . . but it was not control in the most extreme sense," Anderson said.

Asked whether she witnessed anything that may support Malvo's insanity defense, she replied, "I can't say that."

Six months earlier, Faye Merget, 70, spent some time talking with Malvo at the quesadilla sample table she was running at a Cost Cutter market in Bellingham, while Muhammad was picking up a few items elsewhere in the store.

Malvo, she said, seemed a bit lonely but very upbeat. She recalled that he flashed a "magnificent" smile even though he was telling her that he and Muhammad were living out of a car and that they were having a tough time finding an affordable apartment and documents to enroll him in high school.

When Muhammad walked up in the middle of their conversation, Malvo looked glad to see him.

"The minute he came to the table, Malvo was happy," said Merget, who has not been called to testify. "There was a definite indication that he was not afraid of him or under any kind of control."

She added, "He did not look at Muhammad like he was God."

Although Muhammad seemed anxious to leave the store, Malvo kept nudging him to take a bite of a quesadilla. "I would say the kid was the boss. He said, 'Hey, taste this. This is delicious. It only has cheese in it,' " Merget recounted.

Muhammad took a nibble. Malvo then thanked her and said the samples were tasty, and the two drifters moved on.

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