Divorce and loss of custody weighed on Muhammad, says a lawyer who helped him in Tacoma.

NOT EVERYONE CAUGHT UP in a messy divorce goes on a 23-day shooting rampage, calls himself God, and tries to extort $10 million and a Visa card from the government. But for accused Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad, something snapped, says his former Tacoma business partner, Felix Strozier, "because this is totally out of character." And the major life change for Muhammad appears to be a recent divorce that cost him his kids and left him without recourse.

"He was full of frustration over that," says Mario Young, the Tacoma paralegal whom Muhammad went to see last fall. "He seemed a rational, educated man. But we ran into a brick wall—his wife and kids disappeared." Adds veteran Tacoma attorney J. Mills, who handled Muhammad's case: "You have to look at all the different causes of why he may have done this. But this guy was really under stress, and some people just melt down."

Mills theorizes that Muhammad originally went East to find his ex-wife. "If he had found her," Mills said this week in an interview with Seattle Weekly, "I think she'd be dead today." (It turns out she has been living near the D.C. Beltway in Maryland.)

Muhammad, 41, along with 17-year-old companion Lee Malvo, is accused of murdering at least 11 people and wounding four others in the East and the South. Before homicide charges were filed this week, Muhammad was being held on a Seattle federal warrant for a gun violation linked to the Tacoma divorce case. His deadly tale keeps circling back to that touchstone event and the ensuing custody battle, which Young calls "one of the tragedies of family law." It began when Muhammad's second wife, Mildred, filed for divorce Dec. 29, 1999. In March 2000, he was served with a protective order obtained by Mildred (granted at a hearing he didn't attend). She nonetheless allowed him to pick up their three children a week later. He and the kids disappeared, first apparently to the Caribbean, then settling in Washington. They were located in August 2001 in Bellingham. Mildred was given custody of the children, then she disappeared with them. In October 2001, attorney Mills agreed to help Muhammad see his kids again. But Mildred couldn't be found. "The record shows he was a good father," says Mills. "But, in effect, the system snatched his kids away without a hearing. He never got to tell his story."

Not all the dots are connected. But in February 2002, a Tacoma woman, Keenya Cook, 21, was shot to death—she resided with her aunt, who had aided Muhammad's wife during the divorce. An Army-trained marksman and sometime member of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad officially changed his name from Williams last April. He later bought a Bushmaster assault rifle (Mildred's protective order was supposed to ban him from owning firearms) and spoke of killing police officers. In September, a woman was killed in an Alabama liquor-store heist linked to Muhammad and Malvo. On Oct. 2, the first sniping occurred.

"Of course," says Mills, "shooting people wasn't going to get his kids back. But that tells me how far he had deteriorated in the past eight months." He isn't in any way excusing Muhammad's rampage, Mills makes clear. "If there's any good that can come from this, we can try to learn what happened without trying to justify it and maybe change things." Adds Young, a divorc頩nvolved in his own custody dispute: "The reason I became a paralegal was to get into the system and fight it legally. I've also helped a lot of guys see their kids. In that sense, I feel like I let Mr. Muhammad down."

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