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The Making of a Criminal: John Allen Muhammad

By Elaine Cassel

On October 24, 2002, a three-week siege of sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., suburbs ended with the capture of 40-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Malvo. What the factors led to their violent rampage? In Part I of this two-part series, we examined the life of Lee Malvo. In Part II, we look at the life of John Allen Muhammad.

Like Malvo’s short life, Muhammad’s history is filled with biopsychosocial risk factors for crime and violence. From the biological standpoint, little is known about his early history, as his mother died shortly after birth, he had no contact with his father, and he was raised by a series of relatives. He may have been exposed to biological weapons during his stint serving in the Army in the Gulf War; his then-wife says that when he came back from service he had changed radically. He was moody, angry, and exhibited poor impulse control. Indeed, though he had always been known to be controlling and an authoritarian parent, he did not show violent tendencies until after the war. He suffered some humiliating experiences during his time in the Gulf region, including one when he was left hog-tied by his fellow soldiers and feared that enemy forces would kill him. Muhammad commented that he was discriminated against because of his African-American race.

When he came back from the war, Muhammad converted to Islam. That’s when he began a strict diet and exercise regimen that he forced on Lee Malvo, when they met.

Both of Muhammad’s marriages ended badly, and he lost custody of his children. His last wife got a restraining order against Muhammad, because he had physically abused her and threatened to kill her.

About a year before the sniper shootings began, Muhammad showed signs of what some have referred to as a "mental" or "nervous" breakdown. He appeared to be depressed; efforts at starting his own businesses failed, and he could not keep a job. He ended up, with Malvo, living in homeless shelters. People commented that they both often appeared to be hungry and in need of clean clothes. They were crisscrossing the country, perhaps engaging in robberies, and even murders.

Unlike Malvo, Muhammad has made no statements to law enforcement—at least none that we know about. Leaks from law enforcement disclosed that Malvo takes the "credit" for doing many of the actual shootings. People recall that Muhammad referred to Malvo as his "little sniper," and there is evidence that Muhammad taught Malvo how to shoot and groomed him to, perhaps, do the killing in their bizarre scheme.

While no motive has been suggested for the killings, Muhammad had plenty of anger built up inside of him. For years he had exhibited signs of antisocial behavior in his lying, cunning, bullying, and threatening behavior. When he and Malvo began their horrible killing spree, all of the risk factors of Muhammad’s life –lack of stable family of origin, failure in marriage and parenting, failure in the military and business, homelessness, joblessness, poverty, and depression–converged and the killer emerged.

Though Muhammad (and Malvo) experienced many of the risk factors associated with crime and violence, it is important to remember that very few people who experience the same or similar risks end up as killers. While psychologists know much about the risk factors for violence, they do not know just how the risk factors make—or do not make—a criminal. What they do know is that when the risks accumulate in quantity and are stable over time, the chances are greater that innocent people and society at large will be the victims.

There are many points in Muhammad’s life when things might have gone differently, engendering a different result. Success in the military, as a husband and father, as a businessman—any of these might have been enough to turn Muhammad from a killer in the making to a productive citizen.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College