NEW YORK: A New York City man was due in court yesterday to face charges he gunned down and killed a Muslim imam and his assistant on a street in the borough of Queens over the weekend, police said. Oscar Morel, 35, of the borough of Brooklyn, was charged with second-degree murder just hours after hundreds of mourners gathered for the outdoor funeral of the two men on Monday. The killings shocked the neighborhood’s Bangladeshi community.
Morel has been charged with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, Queens District Attorney Richard A Brown said in a statement yesterday. Morel faces the possibility of life in prison without parole if he is convicted of killing Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64.
“The defendant is accused of the murder of a highly respected and beloved religious leader and his friend,” Brown’s statement said. “Their deaths are a devastating loss to their families and the community that they served as men of peace.” Brown said Morel’s motivation remained unclear and that the possibility it was a hate crime was one theory being explored.
Speaking to reporters at Queens County Criminal Court ahead of Morel’s appearance, Uddin’s brother, Mashuk Uddin, said the families of both victims were devastated by their deaths. “Everybody is very upset,” Uddin said, adding that he believes it was a hate crime. “These two people here being killed at one time? What’s the reason? There’s only one reason (and) that’s the hate crime.” Outside court, several relatives of the dead men as well as friends and locals held signs reading “We demand justice.”
Suspect Caught on Camera
Robert Boyce, the New York Police Department’s chief of detectives, told a news conference on Monday that surveillance video showed the suspect getting into a black GMC sport utility vehicle after the shootings. That vehicle was then involved in a hit-and-run three miles away in Brooklyn shortly afterward. After officers located the SUV, the suspect rammed a detective’s car several times in an attempt to escape, but was arrested, Boyce said. He said the suspect is believed to have worked at a warehouse in Brooklyn.
Citing unnamed police sources, the New York Times, the New York Daily News and other outlets reported yesterday that detectives who searched Morel’s basement apartment in Brooklyn found an unlicensed revolver hidden in a wall that authorities believe he used in the execution-style killings. Police also found clothes in his apartment that matched what the gunman had been wearing, according to the media reports.
Akonjee and Uddin were shot in the head at close range after leaving Saturday prayers at the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens. Police said there was no known connection between the man being questioned and the murder victims. Mayor Bill de Blasio, addressing the funeral, promised the city would bolster the police presence in the neighborhood even though the motive behind the killings was still unclear. Police had said there was no evidence the men were targeted because of their faith but nothing was being ruled out.
Akonjee, 55, was a devout and humble preacher beloved by the area’s Bangladeshi Muslim community, according to those who knew him. Many locals wondered what could have prompted his killing. A father of seven, Akonjee emigrated to the United States from Bangladesh several years ago, said Badrul Khan, the founder of the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque. He described the slain imam as a man who lived and breathed his religious faith. “His whole life was his job, praying here, then going home,” Khan said. – Reuters