ST. JOHN'S, Antigua - When John Allen Muhammad snatched his three young children in Tacoma, Wash., and fled a custody order 4,000 miles to the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, he landed on an atoll in flux.

The year was 2000, and the U.S. Treasury Department had just lifted an advisory that warned Americans to take precautions when investing there, even as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called the former British colony a tax haven on the order of the Cayman Islands, Panama and Lebanon.

The island had weathered decades of indignities, ranging from gun-smuggling to South Africa and Colombia to election irregularities and raids on the medical-benefits fund. A series of money-laundering scandals, beginning with the collapse of the European Union Bank in 1997 and culminating with charges in 1999 against Pavlo Lazarenko, former prime minister of Ukraine, cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars.

Glossy magazines advertise Antigua as a tropical paradise with 365 beaches and pristine coral reefs that beckon scuba divers around the world. Stone sugar mills dot the island's quaint interior. Wattle-and-daub houses, their roofs sealed with tar, invite snapshot-taking visitors. Goats nibble freely along roadsides, and roosters crow on the busiest downtown streets. This is the birthplace of novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and the home of the cricket world's version of Michael Jordan, Sir Viv Richards.

But Antigua, whose motto is "Land of Sea and Sun," is also a haven where people on the run settle among friendly but discreet neighbors. This is where Muhammad laid roots for 16 months, using a fake Wyoming driver's license in the name of Thomas Alan Lee to enter the country and dozens of other false names along the way, greeting neighbors warmly but keeping his distance, holding close his secrets as he hustled to and from a tiny white trailer home in Ottos.

"Antigua does have a reputation for being the hide-out of the Caribbean," said Baldwin Spencer, leader of the United Progressive Party, the opposition party in the House of Representatives. "There is something to the idea that people come here when they can't go home." Antigua also has a reputation amid the Leeward Islands of the East Caribbean as being host to an active scandal mill.

Muhammad's puzzling sojourn here has reinvigorated interest in sex, drug, election and ethics scandals past and present, and renewed calls for FBI and Scotland Yard investigations into domestic squabbles.

Last week, a teen-age girl who gave a videotaped interview accusing Prime Minister Lester Bird of having sex with her filed a lawsuit accusing Bird of statutory rape, abduction, conspiracy and sexual assault.

The same day, the British Broadcasting Corp. agreed to pay Bird damages of 50,000 pounds (about $78,000) after airing unfounded allegations that he spent government health funds on cosmetic surgery and was involved in gun-running and drug-trafficking.

This summer, copies of the girl's videotape made their way around the island. The tape contained criminal allegations against Bird and several public officials, including a junior finance minister, the commissioner of police and other members of the police force, and a handful of private citizens.

The girl, Monique Kim Barua, said she met Bird and his younger brother, Ivor Bird, who was convicted of cocaine-smuggling seven years ago, at a party in 1999 and had a sexual relationship first with Ivor Bird, then with the prime minister. She was 12 at the time. She also alleged that she made payments for cocaine deals on behalf of the prime minister, his brother and a governing party senator.

Lester Bird, whose father also was prime minister, was cleared for lack of evidence last week after a government-ordered investigation. He struck a Clintonian tone that grated with some island residents. "I don't even know the girl," he said.

On the day Muhammad's face started ringing bells with acquaintances in this nation of 70,000, the biggest story in St. John's was the release of a report by a retired British police officer into the girl's claims.

The investigation report said there was no evidence against the prime minister or his finance minister but determined that Police Commissioner Truehart Smith had circulated a wish list among a number of prominent businessmen requesting wedding gifts for himself. The commissioner has denied any wrongdoing.

No recent scandal has been more titillating than the allegations that passport officials turned a blind eye to phony Antiguan and U.S. documents such as the ones Muhammad, a former Army sergeant, apparently supplied, allegations that drew FBI investigators to the capital city in search of clues.

"It is a very interesting story, very interesting," said Augustin Sheppard, a sometimes farmer who bought Miracle-Gro and herbal supplements from Muhammad two years ago.

The passport scandal has dominated the front pages of the island's two newspapers, The Sun and The Daily Observer, since the first indications that an American who claimed Antiguan citizenship had been arrested on suspicion of being the Washington-area serial sniper. The Observer, with its sister radio station, has owned the story.

The government launched a swift inquiry into how Muhammad managed to obtain a passport using forged documents and then help others leave the island. Its preliminary report was released Saturday.

Opponents of the Labor Party government who picketed last week outside the prime minister's offices called for the broadest possible investigation into how nationals of other Caribbean islands have been able to skirt the country's immigration laws to obtain Antiguan citizenship.