A Brooklyn, New York, man was arraigned Tuesday on charges of fatally shooting a Queens imam and his associate in broad daylight Saturday as they walked home from a mosque.
Oscar Morel, 35, was charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Imam Maulana Akonjee and his associate, Thara Uddin. Both men, dressed in religious garb, had left the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque at around 1:50 p.m Saturday when they were shot and killed, the New York Police Department (NYPD) said.
Morel, who was led into court around 2:45 p.m. shackled and handcuffed and still wearing his work uniform from when he was arrested, was also charged with two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.
At the arraignment, attended by Akonjee and Uddin's family as well as Morel's, Queens Assistant District Attorney Peter McCormick called the killing a "cold-blooded, premeditated assassination" and asked Morel to be remanded.
Leonard Ressler, Morel's attorney, told the court that Morel "did not make any form of admission" to police. "In fact, he denies and insists that this case proceed as rapidly as possible," Ressler said.
Queens Criminal Court Judge Karen Gopee ordered Morel held without bail. A grand jury hearing was scheduled for Friday. If convicted, Morel faces life in prison without parole.
Before the arraignment, members of the Muslim community gathered outside the courthouse, calling for justice in a double homicide that comes at a time of heightened Islamophobia.
While praising the Queens District Attorney for bringing first-degree murder charges, supporters of the imam and his associate also said they wanted Morel to be charged with a hate crime.
"My father was a very good guy," the imam's son, Saif Akonjee, said at a news conference. "I don't know why he killed my father."
The motive for the shooting was unclear, police said. At a press conference Monday evening before Morel was arrested and charged with murder, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert K. Boyce declined to comment on Morel's mental state, but said a hate-crime was "certainly on the table."
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement Tuesday that a hate crime was one of the motives being explored.
"Regardless, however, whether a hate crime was committed in this case, the crime will be vigorously prosecuted and we will seek the most serious penalties that our law allows," Brown said.
Mashuk Uddin, the brother of the imam's associate, was among those from the Muslim community outside the courthouse who said they believed the murder was a hate crime.
"Why two people he killed one time?" Mashuk Uddin said. "What's the reason?"
Surveillance video shows Morel allegedly approach Akonjee, 55, and Uddin, 64, from behind and fire shots from a handgun. The shooter then sprints away from the scene, at Liberty Avenue and 79 Street in Ozone Park, as both victims fall to the ground.
A gun and clothes similar to those worn by the suspected shooter were found at Morel's home in East New York, Brooklyn, according to NBC New York, which quoted police sources close to the investigation. The gun was discovered hidden in the apartment wall, behind drywall and screws, NBC New York reported.
Prosecutors said the NYPD's ballistics lab tested the gun. "It has been determined that the bullets used to kill the victims in this case were in fact fired from the revolver that was recovered from the defendant's basement apartment," McCormick told the judge.
Prosecutors also said video surveillance near the scene of the shooting captured Morel emerging from his black GMC Trailblazer, walking and running to where Akonjee and Uddin were shot, and running back to his car before leaving.
"In one of the still photographs that was lifted from the video, during questioning by the detectives in this case, the defendant admitted that the person in the still video was in fact himself."
Mohammid Iqval Ali, a supporter outside the courthouse who said he lived in Ozone Park until recently and attended the mosque, told reporters there have long been tensions between Muslims and other ethnic groups, including Hispanics, in the community.
"We're people who get along, but we're easily targeted," he said. "They're looking to rob, they're looking to create fights in the neighborhood, and were easily targeted as Bangladeshi Muslims."
NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton said at a news conference Monday that detectives developed a strong lead in the shootings following an unrelated hit-and-run of a bicyclist in Brooklyn 10 minutes after the double murder.
On surveillance video, detectives identified a black GMC Trailblazer fleeing the scene of the shooting in a "quick fashion" and also identified the person running into the vehicle, Boyce said.
Detectives then searched a police database for that car and came up with a hit-and-run that occurred one mile away at around 2 p.m., according to Boyce and prosecutors.
"We immediately responded to that location and pulled video from that corner, and we looked at the two cars and they were identical," Boyce said, adding that stickers and decals on the windshields appeared identical.
Officers found the car near where the hit-and-run took place and kept watch over it until around 10 p.m. Sunday, when a man emerged and got into the SUV, Boyce said.
"Detectives from the fugitive task force approached the car and then he rammed the detectives' car several times in an effort to get away," Boyce said.
Morel was arrested and brought to the stationhouse for questioning, the chief said. The hit-and-run victim identified Morel as the one who struck him, Boyce said.
In that case, Morel was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and assaulting police officers, authorities said.
Boyce added that Morel's vehicle would also be brought to a facility to be searched.
Monday afternoon, around 1,000 people packed the streets about six blocks from where the shooting happened for a service for Akonjee and Uddin, according to NBC New York. Also in attendance were elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio. Some chanted "justice" periodically throughout the service, NBC New York reported.
At the Monday news conference, de Blasio said the NYPD will be out in force to protect members of the city's Muslim community and its community institutions.
"It is a painful time, but it is a time we will reaffirm that in this city, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us," he said at the Monday evening news conference. "And we will work together to encourage the kind of harmony, the kind of unity that New Yorkers believe in, and will work against these divisive voices that have become so strong in our country."