Police have arrested a 35-year-old East New York man who stands accused of murdering a Queens imam and his assistant in Ozone Park over the weekend, but law enforcement officials wouldn’t confirm speculation that the two men were victims of a hate crime.
“We’re still drilling down on that as we go forward,” Robert Boyce, chief of detectives, told reporters at a press conference last night. “That’s certainly on the table — a hate crime.” Boyce said that the suspect, Oscar Morel, was at the scene of the crime eight minutes before the fatal shooting began. “Right now we can’t explain why this person was there.”
Mayor de Blasio, who spoke at the victims’ funeral yesterday, said at the press conference that he has “assured the members of the community the NYPD would be out in force protecting community institutions, protecting Muslim communities all over the city.”
According to Boyce, detectives found Morel after he was involved in a hit-and-run crash three miles away shortly after the murders occurred.
The execution-style killings took place at about 1:50 p.m. Saturday at the corner of Liberty Avenue and 79th Street in Ozone Park. Police believe Morel came up behind Imam Alauddin Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, and shot them at close range in the back of the head.
A surveillance video showed footage of the gunman entering a black TrailBlazer and driving away after the shooting.
“We were able to trace him video-wise into the car, and then he took off,” Boyce said. “He then went up to Liberty Avenue, made a right, and then disappeared into traffic, heading eastbound.”
Ten minutes later, a car fitting that description was involved in a hit-and-run at Pine Street and Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn.
The TrailBlazer was discovered parked in front of Morel’s address on Miller Avenue in East New York, where investigators staked it out. According to Boyce, when Morel got into the vehicle at around 10 p.m., detectives approached him and he “rammed the detectives’ car several times in an effort to get away.”
Morel is charged with two counts of murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Police say they found the gun used in the slayings inside a cavity cut into the wall of Morel’s apartment.
The New York Times reports that Akonjee had seven children and that he came to the U.S. in 2011. A year later, the imam and his family moved to New York. On Tuesday, his wife and two of their children will fly to Bangladesh to bury him.
On Sunday, hundreds of Ozone Park residents and members of the Bangladeshi community came out to protest the killings.
“We want justice!” they chanted while standing beneath elevated subway tracks, according to the Times.
“The imam was our spiritual leader; we worshipped with him five times a day. You can’t imagine what we’ve lost,” Mosharraft Hossain told the Times. “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.”