A Brooklyn man was held without bail on Tuesday, charged with the execution-style shootings of a Queens imam and his assistant over the weekend, according to the Queens district attorney’s office.
Oscar Morel, 35, was charged with first-degree murder after allegedly fatally shooting Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his aide, Thara Uddin, 64, as they walked home from their Ozone Park mosque on Saturday afternoon. Queens prosecutors were also looking into whether the shootings could be considered a hate crime, according to the DA’s office.
"While the motivation for this violent act is still unclear and continues to be investigated, one of the possible motives being explored is whether this was a hate crime," Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said in a statement.
Morel, who made “admissions” to investigators, according to the criminal complaint, also faces two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, police said. His next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 18.
Surveillance video of the attack, reviewed by amNewYork, showed both victims walking down Liberty Avenue, near 79th Street, about 1:50 p.m. when Morel allegedly ran up behind them before running away. A law enforcement official said Akonjee had been carrying $1,000 cash, which was not taken.
Both victims were rushed to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center with gunshot wounds to their heads, where they were pronounced dead.
About 10 minutes after Morel was accused of shooting the pair, he apparently hit a bicyclist with his black Chevrolet TrailBlazer about three miles away by the corner of Pine Street and Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn and took off, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said. A man had been spotted on surveillance video speeding off in the same truck right after the murder.
Police were able to track the truck and wait for Morel to come back to it.
Police also recovered a .38 caliber Taurus revolver in connection with the murders.
Morel’s arraignment comes a day after several hundred community members and several elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, attended the funeral of the men he is accused of shooting.
"We don't know what happened yet, but we will know,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said, speaking at the funeral. “And we know for sure that two good men, two admirable men, two men who were looked up to in this community, who talked, who have listened, who guided, have been lost. And we feel the emptiness and the sense of pain that’s now so present in this community."
Chants of “we want justice” rang out over the crowd, as several demanded more patrols and security cameras be placed near mosques. Public Advocate Letitia James echoed that concern.
“He was a peacemaker, a man of faith. And his assistant was a loyal friend," she said. "He did not deserve to die. And so I join with the Muslim community in demanding justice for this community. I also join with his community in demanding that every house of faith in this community is protected and secure, and that they have video cameras around all of the mosques to protect this community as they pray.”
Asif Ahmed, 26, attends prayers at the mosque and said he was "really happy" the mayor attended the funeral.
"It's a small community, just shocked that it happened," he said. "It's great to see everyone coming together."
On Monday, detectives walked a handcuffed Morel out of the 107th Precinct in Flushing into a waiting unmarked sedan just after 10:30 p.m. They had been questioning Morel at the stationhouse since taking him into custody Sunday night on unrelated hit-and-run charges, police said.
Morel did not answer reporters’ questions about the slayings, including whether the men were shot because they were Muslim, before ducking into the sedan.
A COMMUNITY IN MOURNING
The arrest was welcome news to many in the Ozone Park community, still reeling from the weekend shooting but remembering the lost men.
On Sunday, Saif Akonjee, 23, one of seven of the imam’s children, said his family just wants justice.
“He's our everything,” he said, adding his father was the sole income earner in the home. “I love him too much."
His son, Naim Akonjee, 21, said his father first worked in the Bronx when he moved to America before settling in Queens.
"He's a good guy," he said, tearing up as he spoke. "He always wants peace ... so we just want justice."
Azad Hussain, acting secretary of the mosque, said the imam and Uddin often would walk to pray together.
“They come together every day,” he said. “Why did they kill the priest — even in the daytime? Too much violence.”
Millat Uddin, who is not related to Thara Uddin, said the imam was a nice man who preached peace and has been at the mosque about four years.
“He’s an exceptionally docile man,” he said. “Every day in his prayer he prays for the whole community, all races, to be in peace. By our own behavior we have to let other communities know we are good people.”
He said members of the Muslim community are scared.
“Anything could happen to me,” he said.
Sayed Ahmed, 38, a neighbor of Akonjee and a member of the mosque, called the shooting “painful.”
“What can you say? It’s very sad for the community,” he said. “Being that it happened in broad daylight puts them on edge.”
He said the imam had plans to visit his mother in Bangladesh. Now, he said, the mother requested his body be flown back for burial.
Ahmed said his 6-year-old daughter has been frightened, asking why someone would do such a thing.
“That’s how the community is feeling — if you wear traditional clothing you’re a target. The whole community thinks it’s a hate crime,” he said.
“I walk down the street every day, I go to work like everybody, thinking we’re all above this,” he said. “This incident, and others, tell you we are not above this. These kinds of things didn’t even happen after 9/11, why’s it happening now?”
Recent political rhetoric, he added, “puts you on edge.”
Iman Boukadoum, of the Association of Muslim American Lawyers, described the Muslim community’s initial reaction as devastation and shock.
“To have a sacred religious leader gunned down Mafia-style in daylight walking out of a mosque has to be motivated by hate," Boukadoum said. "This is a bias crime.”
She said tensions are high as a result of current “hateful rhetoric, and this is a manifestation of that.”
Cheikh Ahmed Mbareck, executive director of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, said the group has pledged $10,000 to aid the families.
Immediately following the shooting on Saturday night, friends and relatives gathered homes of the victims, who lived on the same block just a few houses apart.
Akonjee’s daughter Naima Akonjee, 28, of Queens, said Saturday that relatives were delaying telling her mother about the deadly shootings.
“I want to tell her but I cannot,” Naima Akonjee said. “She’s feeling sick. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to put her through that. I’m scared to tell her.”
Maulama Akonjee had seven children, while Uddin had three children, according to their relatives.
Uddin’s nephew Shezwan Uddin, 22, of Ozone Park, said Uddin’s son called him crying to tell him of the news. “He said, ‘Somebody’s shot my father! Somebody shot my father!’ ” Shezwan Uddin said.
Misba Abdin, who works at an East New York supermarket, said he attends the mosque where Akonjee presided and said the imam and most of the members of the mosque are of Bangladeshi descent.
“He was a very quiet person,” Abdin said of Akonjee. “He normally only prays.”
Several political officials visited the neighborhood over the weekend, voicing their concern over the violent shootings and pledging city support.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who attended the funeral on Monday and visited the mosque before afternoon prayers on Sunday, said he understood the fear community members had for their children.
“There's no debating some of the facts here: two community religious leaders were killed in cold blood, in broad daylight on a sidewalk in Queens. In an instant, two families lost fathers, a mosque lost an imam and his assistant, and the Muslim-American family lost two dedicated leaders,” he said, speaking at the funeral. “But this tragedy doesn't just cause grief for the congregants of one of the mosques, and it doesn't just affect one community. It pains our entire city. Because when one New Yorker is attacked, we're all attacked.”
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz also arrived at the mosque on Glenmore Avenue and 77th Street before the afternoon prayer Sunday, assuring the residents that the city stands with the Muslim community.
“You have a right to pray with honor and respect,” she said. “We stand not only with the community, but we stand together with the city of New York. These two men were not only men of worship ... they were family, they were cousins and they were someone’s son.”
But politics was never far from anyone’s mind, with many Ozone Park residents blaming the anti-Muslim rhetoric of this election cycle. Speaking at the funeral, de Blasio promised that kind of talk wasn’t welcome in the city.
“And we know there are voices all over this country who are spewing hate, trying to create division, trying to turn one American against another," he said. "I look around at all of my brothers and sisters here, I see proud Americans. I see proud New Yorkers. And I will never let us be torn apart and we will never let each other be torn apart. We're not going to listen to those voices that try to divide us. And we're not going to let them continue to encourage acts of hatred. We will stand up to them each and every time."
- With Newsday