Whenever one of Mildred Muhammad's three children calls her, she answers the phone with a worried greeting: "What's wrong? " The question usually...

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WASHINGTON — Whenever one of Mildred Muhammad’s three children calls her, she answers the phone with a worried greeting: “What’s wrong?”

The question usually brings an exasperated sigh from the other end of the line, reassuring the former wife of sniper John Allen Muhammad that everything is fine.

Invariably, the call is routine: Taalibah, 15, has a question about her homework. Salena, 16, is checking in after school.

“But that’s how it always is,” the former Tacoma resident said. “My first thought is always: Is everything OK? Then I ask, ‘What’s up?’ Even now.”

It has been nearly six years since snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo paralyzed the Washington, D.C., region in a three-week shooting spree, killing 10 people and wounding three others in October 2002. Muhammad was sentenced to death and is appealing his sentence; Malvo is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Muhammad, a former Fort Lewis soldier, and Malvo lived in the Tacoma area and in Bellingham before heading east.

They are believed to have killed a woman and are suspects in a separate shooting at a synagogue, both in Tacoma. Muhammad and Malvo also have been linked to three other deaths.

In October 2002, the Muhammad family was whisked into protective custody; Mildred Muhammad left her administrative job at Southern Maryland Hospital Center, and the children were taken out of school. Their future was uncertain. Today, her son, John, 18, attends Louisiana Tech University. Taalibah and Salena, both singers, attend a performing-arts program at a suburban high school.

John Muhammad had subjected his wife to verbal abuse and accusations of adultery, threatening to kill her and kidnap the children. Mildred Muhammad, 48, is using her experience to help other abuse victims. Last year she incorporated a nonprofit, After the Trauma, to prevent domestic violence and travels the country giving speeches. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“I had to disappear for a while, because I saw I needed to focus on my family, my children and myself. … If I were a basket case, my children would be much worse, ” she said from her office in suburban Prince George’s County, Md.

“But my children, they didn’t want to be ‘the sniper’s children.’ They wanted to be John, Salena and Taalibah. They were afraid to tell people who they were. All they wanted was to live a normal life, but they weren’t going to get that unless they had a strong support system.”

Lives torn apart

The relatively normal life they lead is one Mildred Muhammad fought hard to create after their lives were torn apart. Her son rebelled when she regained custody of him and his sisters after John Muhammad kidnapped them.

The boy had been convinced by his father that his mother had abandoned him. Salena had a terrible stutter, especially when saying her name, because her father had forced the children to change their names and made them believe they would get into trouble if they ever used their birth names.

But Mildred Muhammad knew she had to let the children work through their feelings about what happened to them and the terror their father had wrought.

“I don’t have nightmares. I don’t have flashbacks. I don’t cry when I tell my story. I don’t sit back and say, ‘What if?’ And that’s what I teach my children,” she said. “I never say anything negative about their dad. I have to be careful how it comes out even when I talk about everything publicly. Because ultimately he is their father.

“It took me a while to come to terms that they still loved their dad, even though that man was trying to kill me,” she said.

She takes that approach about Malvo, too, because he had become close to her children. Malvo and her son were best friends.

Mildred Muhammad helped manage the family’s auto-mechanic shop in Tacoma for much of their 12-year marriage. But their relationship deteriorated. She said John Muhammad threatened to kill her several times.

On March 27, 2000, John Muhammad took the children, living with them on the Caribbean island of Antigua for 18 months. He convinced Malvo’s mother to allow him to care for the teenager, who grew up with John’s children.

When authorities found the children in August 2001, Mildred Muhammad gained custody and moved to the Washington, D.C., area.

“I had to understand their pain on both sides of the fence,” Muhammad said. “So when the news was going on about Malvo … and I started saying, ‘Malvo this and Malvo that,’ my son said: ‘Mom, don’t call him that. His name is Lee.’ That told me that I was helping my children deal with their father, but I was also helping them deal with their best friend.”

Book contract

Muhammad has had more than three dozen speaking engagements this year, developed a journal for abuse victims and has a book contract. Her children have attended her talks, prepared brochures and organized files.

“I had to find a way of turning all this tragedy into some kind of positive,” she said. “Perhaps my experience with John will trigger some emotion within them to cause them to act and make a decision not to live in a domestic-violence situation.”

She also found love. She married counselor Reuben Muhammad, 43, in August 2007.

Though her former husband is in a maximum-security prison in Southern Virginia, she carries an order of protection in her purse. “He’s tried to escape three times already,” she said.

Her children haven’t asked to contact their father or Malvo, nor has their father tried to contact them, she said. But John Muhammad could ask to see them as a last request before being executed, a day she dreads.

“If he asks to see them?” She paused. “I’m not going in there, so I’ll have to find someone to go in there with them, someone who I can trust and won’t let John use his words to upset them or plant seeds with them.

“Most people can say, ‘I can’t wait until he’s killed. Then this whole thing will be over.’ Well, it won’t stop for us. Once he’s executed, then that connection is gone. I can’t imagine what they are going to feel.”

The future is a challenge she willingly accepts. Having worked so hard, first to regain her children and then to help them heal, she revels in each moment with them.

“When my children are yelling and screaming around the house, I just sit back and listen,” she said, smiling. “It’s like music to my ears.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.