FLINT, Mich. — Nearly a day after his arrest in connection with a string of 18 stabbings in three states that left five people dead, an Israeli national suspected in the crimes remains a mystery, and possible motives in the attacks are unclear.
Elias Abuelazam, 33, is charged with assault with intent to murder in a July 27 stabbing in Flint, Mich., officials said Thursday, and he is being investigated in cases in northern Virginia and Ohio.
Leesburg, Va., police are investigating whether Abuelazam was responsible for the March 26, 2009, stabbing death of Jammie Lane, 44, Police Chief Joseph Price said Thursday. "We are going to explore all possible connections," Price said. Abuelazam also had an outstanding arrest warrant related to a "family based assault" in 2007, Price said.
Abuelazam was arrested Wednesday night at a boarding gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shortly before his plane was to take off. Officers seized him after he was paged over the intercom and told to report at a ticket counter.
Passengers on the Delta Air Lines flight that Abuelazam intended to take to Tel Aviv were stunned but said Abuelazam appeared tense at the gate. He was talking to someone on his cell phone "about not being violent and different things like that," passenger Eugene Williams said after the plane landed in Tel Aviv.
Abuelazam's mother, Iyam al-Azzam, told Israel Radio that she talked to her son by phone before he was supposed to board "and he sounded the same as usual, quiet and calm."
She said she was getting ready to pick her son up at the airport when relatives told her he had been arrested. "I do not believe these charges are true," she said. "Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."
Abuelazam holds Israeli citizenship and had an expired Israeli passport, and was reportedly traveling on it at the time of his arrest, authorities said. Helisted a Florida address and was in the United States on a green card. He had lived in Flint — where 14 of the stabbings took place — only since May.
In Ramla, a mixed Israeli Jewish-Arab working class town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the shabby, two-story house where the suspect's mother and sister live was dark late Thursday. Neighbors, who refused to give their names, said the family is Christian but told reporters little else.
Police in Israel said Abuelazam was believed to have been involved with drugs and stabbed a friend during a recent visit to Israel.
Acquaintances of the young Abuelazam told the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv that he was a quiet young man who was occasionally beaten up because he was considered something of a "geek."
Abuelazam spent time in Genesee County, Mich. in late 1994 and early 1995 when he would have been in his late teens, according to the Flint Journal, which cited Central District Court records. A series of traffic tickets connect Abulelazam to this area during a five-month stretch.
By 2002, Abuelazam was in Leesburg, Va., the Journal reported, working as a mental health technician at a psychiatric facility. His duties included supervising residents, according to a workers’ compensation claim he filed.
In 2004, Abuelazam married a woman in Virginia but was divorced three years later. From her home in Texas, Kimberly Hirth told the Journal she was "shocked” after hearing of his arrest. “He was such a nice person as far as we knew.”
Hunt starts in Michigan
As news of the serial stabbings circulated in Michigan, state police focused their hunt on Flint until Leesburg police reported three attacks. Authorities in Toledo, Ohio, say a stabbing in that city Saturday also appears to be linked to the violent spree.
Investigators Wednesday night raided a rental home on Flint's east side that is believed to have been used by Abuelazam, WNEM-TV reported. Witnesses said officers with the Michigan State Police crime lab removed numerous items.
Late Wednesday, one tip led to Atlanta, police said. Leesburg Officer Chris Jones said police obtained "information that he was trying to leave the country."
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency's officers arrested Abuelazam about 10 p.m. Wednesday night. He was handed over to the FBI and Atlanta police.
Antwione Marshall, the victim of the July 27 stabbing in which Abuelazam has been charged, told The Associated Press that he identified Abuelazam as his assailant when the FBI visited him at 3 a.m. to show him a photograph of the suspect.
Marshall, 26, of Flint, said he was going into his apartment building when the assailant approached and asked for help fixing his car. He was stabbed twice when he opened the hood, and now has a long scar from his chest to his pelvic area.
Marshall said he wants to "retaliate" but "I'll let God handle it. Every time I look at my scar, I get angry."
Police said Abuelazam is being detained at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, pending extradition to Michigan.
Nabbed, then released
Abuelazam was questioned by police twice on the same day last month in Michigan, marking the second and third times police are known to have investigated him since the the string of stabbings began in late May.
Police in northern Virginia said Thursday at one point last week Abuelazam was in custody after being pulled over on a routine traffic stop at 1:15 a.m. on Aug. 5.
Arlington County police spokeswoman Detective Crystal L. Nosal said after Abuelazam was stopped, officers found he was wanted on a simple assault warrant out of Leesburg, Va. She said after booking him, a magistrate denied Abuelazam bond, and released him the same day on personal recognizance, meaning he would be responsible for returning to court.
Court records on file in 67th District Court in Genesee County, Mich., show that Abuelazam was also charged on the afternoon of July 29 with providing alcohol to a minor, which carries a $40 fine. Later that evening, he was stopped for a $125 traffic violation. Both fines were due next week.
In the traffic citation, Abuelazam gave his address as a unit in the Fountain Lakes Apartments in Bradenton, Fla. It's the same address listed on his arrest warrant in the Marshall case.
The attacks began surfacing in late spring, and picked up the pace as the stabber traversed the country.
Police have said they usually follow a pattern: The suspect approaches black men late at night on lonely urban roads and asks for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then, without warning, he pulls out a knife and strikes. Then, he speeds away in his vehicle, leaving them for dead.
Most of the victims have been black, and police suspect the attacks may have been racially motivated. The youngest victim was 17; the oldest was 60. They ranged in size from 5-foot-4 inches and 120 pounds to 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds.
Authorities in Leesburg, a predominantly white city, believe the three victims there were chosen because they are black.
In simultaneous news conferences this afternoon, the prosecutor in Flint, Mich., where most of the assaults connected to Abuelazam occurred, and the police chief in Leesburg, Va., where the case against Abuelazam began coming together last week, contradicted each other over the assailant was motivated by race.
"My belief is he selected the victims of Leesburg based upon their color of their skin," Leesburg's chief Price said.
But at almost the same time in Flint, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton was saying that as of now, there's "no other evidence" of a racial motive.
Killed were David Motley, 31, Emmanuel A. Muhammad, 59, Darwin Marshall, 43, and Arnold R. Minor, 49, all of Flint, and Frank Kellybrew, 60, of Flint Township. All died before Aug. 4, when Michigan authorities concluded the attacks were the work of one serial killer.
Abuelazam's boss at the Kingwater Market convenience store in the Beecher district, just north of Flint, said he started working at the store on July 5 and abruptly stopped on Aug. 1.
"He was friendly. He was a nice guy," manager Abdullah Farrah told Detroit's WDIV-TV.
Sam Peters, 30, recalled seeing Abuelazam with a bandage on his right hand and cuts on his fingers when he went into the store.
Peters, who is black, said people around the store hadn't suspected the assailant was among them.
"We always thought somebody was trying to perpetrate a hate crime against us," he said.
This story includes information from Associated Press and NBC News.