Brooklyn Man Charged With Killing Imam and Assistant Near Mosque
Rick Rojas, Liz Robbins, Noah Remnick, William Rashbaum, Joseph Goldstein, Julfikar Ali Manik, NYT, Aug 13 2016
Two days after an imam and his assistant were gunned down after afternoon prayers in Queens, the police said late Monday that a man they had in custody had been charged in the killings. The man, Oscar Morel of Brooklyn, 35, who was taken into custody late Sunday after the police connected him to a hit and run that occurred about a mile away from the fatal attack, faces two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon, the police said. A police official said investigators had found what they believe was the murder weapon in the man’s home as well as clothes matching the description of what the gunman had been wearing during the shootings. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the gun was found inside a wall in his apartment, on Miller Avenue in the East New York neighborhood, in a cavity that had apparently been cut open and resealed. A man who answered a phone listed for Mr Morel’s family said that he was stunned by the arrest. His voice soft and shaking with emotion, the man said:
That is our relative. We are just finding out ourselves. We’re pulling together the pieces as well.
In Bangladesh, the oldest of the imam’s seven children, Fayez’ud-Din Akonjee, 28, said he was relieved at the charges and expressed gratitude to the police. But in an interview in his native language, Bengali, he was still seething with anger. He said:
We want to know as victims why he killed my father. What was his motive behind killing my father? Whether he was hired or appointed by someone else to kill my father or did he himself plan and kill my father?
Earlier Monday evening, New York City officials sought to reassure members of the Muslim community in New York, saying that a “strong person of interest” was in police custody. At a news conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the fear that had spread among members of the city’s Bangladeshi community over concerns that the two men, who were dressed in religious garb at the time of the attack, had been targeted because of their faith. Mr de Blasio said:
It’s a very rare thing to see a cleric killed, and the Muslim community has already been on edge. I assured the members of the community the NYPD would be out in force. You will see in the Muslim communities in our city, the NYPD will be there in support of this community. You will see today and in the days thereafter extra NYPD presence protecting our mosques and protecting the people of our Muslim community.
The killings of the imam, Alauddin Akonjee, 55, and his assistant, Thara Miah, 64, have shaken those in the Bangladeshi community, many of whom reside in the area around Ozone Park where the men lived, worshiped and were killed. In that neighborhood, some have been calling the attack a hate crime, even though police officials said the motivation for the killings remained unclear. Investigators believe the gunman followed the two men to the corner of Liberty Avenue and 79th Street and shot each in the back of the head, police officials said. In surveillance footage captured by cameras nearby, investigators were able to see the assailant get into his car, a black GMC sport utility vehicle, and drive away, soon blending into traffic, Robert Boyce, the Police Dept’s chief of detectives, told reporters on Monday. By tracking the make and model of the vehicle, he said, investigators found that the same kind of vehicle had been involved in a hit and run nearby, at the intersection of Pine Street and Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. Investigators found the car parked on the street in East New York, where they waited for the driver to emerge. On Sunday night, officials said the man got into the car and rammed into a police vehicle as he tried to flee. The man was arrested in connection with the hit and run and hitting the police vehicle. Chief Boyce said investigators were searching his home on Monday night. He said:
Because of the evidence so far, we strongly believe this is the individual. We have not determined the motivation for the attack, and it is unclear if the man had any connection to the two murder victims. We’re still drilling down on it. It’s certainly on the table that it’s a hate crime. Right now, we can’t explain why that person was there.
Earlier in the day, the funeral prayers for Mr. Akonjee and Mr. Miah drew several hundred mourners along with Mr de Blasio and other officials in a nondescript parking lot in East New York, bordering Ozone Park. The same people who had worshiped five times a day at Mr Akonjee’s Al-Furqan Jame Masjid, a modest two-story house turned into a mosque, came to get a last look at their imam’s closed coffin, draped in fabric of gold and green and resting in the back of a hearse. The imam came to Pindostan in 2011 and moved his family to New York a year later to provide a better education for his children. Now his wife and two of his children will fly back with his body to Bangladesh. At the funeral prayers, Mr de Blasio said:
In Islam, the loss of a person is regarded not just as a loss for their family, but for the entire community. That’s something we as New Yorkers understand, again across all faiths, across all neighborhoods, when a loss is felt so deeply, when it affects us all.
Several speakers implored the police to increase security efforts in the neighborhood, placing security cameras and patrols outside the mosques. People held signs declaring, “We Are Muslims, Not Terrorists,” “We Want Peace,” “We Want Justice” and “Muslim Lives Matter.” Both Mr Akonjee and Mr Miah were known as quiet scholars, devoted to the mosque and to their families. Mr Akonjee’s sermons on Friday attracted nearly 200 worshipers, who heard him speak about the role of Islam in a diverse society in Pindostan. Kobir Chowdhury, the president of Masjid Al-Aman, a nearby mosque in Brooklyn, said:
He conveyed a message of peace and harmony and quietness with your neighbors despite their religion, culture and race.
Mosharraft Hossain said:
The imam was our spiritual leader. We worshiped with him five times a day. You can’t imagine what we’ve lost.
Murders have been rare over the years within the Bangladeshi community in and around Ozone Park. In Jul 2014, an activist leader with ties to Bangladeshi politics, Nazmul Islam, 55, was beaten to death in a robbery at 76th Street and Atlantic Avenue. Nestor Rodriguez, 22, and Carlos Genno, 25, both of Queens, were indicted on charges of second-degree murder and are still awaiting trial. In Aug 2002, a photojournalist from Bangladesh, Mizanur Rahman, 37, was beaten to death in a midnight attack just over the county line in Brooklyn that appeared to have been the result of gang- and race-related fights. Hardy Marston, 18, and Rafael Santos, 27, were charged with murder, gang assault and criminal possession of a weapon. On Monday, many mourners expressed concern about an increasing anti-Muslim climate in New York. Mr Hossain said:
I don’t feel safe anymore. All of this hatred being propagated, especially by Donald Trump, it puts us at risk. People sometimes pass me on the street and call me Bin Laden. I just try to keep my head down and keep walking.