Tacoma man shares $500,000 reward

Officials have decided to divide the $500,000 reward in the Washington, D.C., area sniper case between two recipients, a Tacoma man who was the first to identify John Allen Muhammad as a suspect, and a motorist who directed police to Muhammad’s car at a rural Maryland rest stop, where he and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan in Maryland said he plans to announcetoday that $350,000 will go to Robert Holmes, 47, who tipped the FBI during the October 2002 sniper manhunt that he suspected that his friend Muhammad was the shooter. Duncan said $150,000 will be given to Whitney Donahue, 38, of Greencastle, Pa., who spotted Muhammad’s Chevrolet Caprice in a Frederick County, Md., rest area after hearing a news report that investigators were searching for the vehicle.

The two were selected from among more than 60,000 tipsters who called authorities during the three-week series of shootings, which killed 10 people, wounded three and spread fear and disruption across the Washington region. Muhammad, 43, has been sentenced to death in Virginia for one of the killings, and Malvo, 19, convicted in another of the slayings, is serving a life term in Virginia without the possibility of parole.

A committee made up of representatives of eight local and federal law enforcement agencies voted unanimously March17 to give the $500,000 to Holmes and Donahue. In Montgomery County, where six of the victims were slain, officials seeded the reward fund with $50,000 in public money during the manhunt, and the rest came from private donors before the arrests. Duncan’s office is custodian of the fund.

"They told me they wanted the money going to the person who told us who the shooters were and to the person who told us where they were," Duncan said Friday, referring to the reward committee. The money, which is taxable, "is a nice benefit to two people who gave us information we needed to help solve this case."

In interviews Friday, Holmes and Donahue, who had not been officially notified of the distribution decision, said they were satisfied with their respective rewards.

"I wish it had never happened, and it wasn’t about the money," Holmes, an auto mechanic, said of his involvement in the sniper case. He served in the Army with Muhammad in the late 1980s and kept in touch with him afterward. He said he considers Muhammad a friend and wishes the attacks had never occurred so he would not have had to call the FBI.

"It wasn’t a choice," Holmes said. "I don’t feel like a hero. I feel I did what you or anyone else would have done in the same situation."

He said he is not sure what he will do with the $350,000. "I wish maybe I’d hit the Lotto or something, but not like this," he said. "I’d rather see John come around with that big smile and laugh rather than him being on death row. I’m at a loss for words."

Donahue, who repairs refrigeration systems in supermarkets, declined to discuss his plans for the $150,000. "I just feel like an average guy who called it in and helped everybody out," he said. "I would think a lot of other people would have done what I did. I am proud of it, that I was able to help out. The only thing I feel bad about is that it wasn’t stopped sooner and that there were so many victims."

While Donahue didn’t know the snipers and became involved in the case by chance, Holmes’s role was more complicated.

A turning point in Muhammad’s life occurred in Washington state in September 2001 when his ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, got court approval to move anywhere she wanted with the couple’s two children, and John Muhammad was denied the right to visit. She settled in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, while her former husband and Malvo, an illegal immigrant from the Caribbean, crisscrossed the country, allegedly committing a series of robberies and killings in several states before the October 2002 sniper attacks.

Several times during those months, the two stopped in Tacoma to visit Holmes, who later recalled that Muhammad’s mental state appeared to be deteriorating. During one visit, Muhammad, who brought an assault rifle, tested a homemade silencer in Holmes’s backyard by firing bullets into a tree stump.

On Oct. 17, 2002, a few days after the 11th victim was shot, Holmes called an FBI tip line and said he suspected that the shooter was Muhammad. He had not seen his old Army buddy in months; he knew Muhammad was angry, obsessed with firearms and probably mentally unstable; and he knew that Muhammad detested his former wife, who was living near the nation’s capital.

The FBI entered Holmes’s report in a database, but agents did not show up at his Tacoma home to interview him until five days later.

Meanwhile, Muhammad and Malvo began to give themselves away while trying to communicate with authorities about their demand for $10 million to stop the attacks. In telephone calls to police and to a Roman Catholic priest in Virginia, a caller believed to have been Malvo referred to a robbery-slaying that occurred in Montgomery, Ala., 11 days before the Washington area shootings started.

Investigators compared a fingerprint from the Alabama crime scene with prints in a national database. On Oct. 22, as FBI agents were interviewing Holmes, the print was matched to Malvo, who had been arrested and fingerprinted as an illegal immigrant in 2001. His arrest record mentioned Muhammad as an associate.

That information, coupled with Holmes’s report, prompted police to begin a massive search for Muhammad and Malvo. Although police released a photograph of Muhammad late on Oct. 23, they did not make public the New Jersey license number of Muhammad’s 1990 Caprice, in which he and Malvo were traveling.

The media had learned of it by monitoring police scanners, and Donahue, driving home to Pennsylvania from a job in Manassas that night, heard the license plate number — NDA-21Z — on a radio news report. He jotted it down on the back of a time sheet.

When Donahue pulled into a nearly empty rest area off Interstate 70 in Frederick County about 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 24, he saw the Caprice, with Muhammad and Malvo inside, apparently asleep. He called 911, then kept watch on the rest area for about three hours, staying in cellphone contact with police. It took that long for officers to reach the rest area by car and helicopter, then plan and carry out an assault on the Caprice.

Duncan said Friday that the distribution of the reward money is a welcome piece of good news in a tragic saga.

"The public, through the whole thing, was looking for ways they could participate," he said. "We asked them to call us with information, and we got tens of thousands of calls from people trying to help us solve the case. It just showed the spirit of the American people."

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