A 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death in his Illinois home by his landlord, who also critically wounded the boy's mother in an alleged anti-Muslim hate crime, police said Sunday, calling it a “senseless and cowardly act of violence.”
Wadea Al-Fayoume was stabbed 26 times at his Plainfield home by Joseph Czuba, 71, Saturday, investigators said. He died at the hospital.
His mother, Hanaan Shahin, 32, was stabbed more than a dozen times, authorities said, adding that she is at a hospital and is expected to survive.
“Detectives were able to determine that both victims in this brutal attack were targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis,” the Will County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
Czuba was arrested and charged by the Will County Sheriff’s Office after police say they determined he stabbed the child and mother because they were Muslim and because of the ongoing situation in Israel.
Before the boy's funeral prayer service Monday at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, the child's father, Odey Al-Fayoume, speaking in Arabic, said he hopes something good can come out of his son's slaying.
“I’m here because I’m the father of the boy, not because I’m a political person or a religious person or anything. I’m here as the father of a child whose rights were taken from him,” Al-Fayoume said.
He called his son a "martyr."
“I hope that the families of Gaza accept him from me as such," he said. "The issue of Hamas and Gaza are world issues, not pertaining to individual countries. I’m not big enough to speak of these things. And I hope that my son can be a means by which this issue can be fixed.”
At the end of the funeral, a small white casket, which at one point was covered in the Palestinian flag, was carried away.
Hate crime investigation
The brutal killing comes amid heightened tensions in the Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East and at a time when Muslim and Arab communities in the U.S. are warning against hate toward their people stateside.
The slaying has sparked public outcry and heartbreak, as well as condemnation from the White House.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois, based in Chicago, said the office had opened a federal hate crime investigation into the stabbings to determine whether the suspect violated federal law.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Sunday: “I am heartbroken by the abhorrent killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old child who died after being stabbed 26 times with a military-style knife. On behalf of the entire Justice Department, I want to express my deepest condolences to his family and his community as they grieve his loss.”
The Justice Department warned the incident may “further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence.”
On Sunday, President Joe Biden denounced the stabbings, saying: “This horrific act of hate has no place in America.”
“The child’s Palestinian Muslim family came to America seeking what we all seek—a refuge to live, learn, and pray in peace,” he said.
Vice President Kamala Harris said Monday that she and her husband "grieve with the family of Wadea Al-Fayoume," adding, "We unequivocally condemn hate and Islamophobia and stand with the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American communities. The Biden-Harris Administration will continue working to protect our communities against hate and senseless violence."
The Will County Sheriff's Office said deputies responded to a residence in Plainfield just before noon Saturday and found the two victims inside a bedroom, both with “multiple stab wounds to their chest, torso and upper extremities.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago held a news conference Sunday with Wadea's father. CAIR executive director Ahmed Rehab said Shahin sent text messages to Wadea's father recounting what happened, and detailing the anti-Muslim statements made during the attack.
CAIR said she texted, “It all happened in seconds.”
She said Czuba allegedly knocked on the door, and when she opened it, he choked her and allegedly yelled “you Muslims must die,” Rehab said.
Rehab said the mother and son had lived in the ground floor of the home for two years and had previously. had a cordial relationship with the landlord.
“The father said [the landlord] had built a tree house for the boy and allowed him to swim in a makeshift pool and brought him toys. But it wasn’t until he started watching the news and hearing the statements [about the war] that something changed,” Rehab said.
The sheriff's office said Shahin called 911 after her landlord "attacked her with a knife" — described as a 12-inch, serrated military-style knife with a seven-inch blade — and she ran into the bathroom and fought off her attacker as she called for help.
Czuba was found sitting on the ground near the driveway with a laceration to his head, the sheriff's office said. After being treated at a hospital he was questioned by detectives but did not make any statements, authorities said.
Court documents filed Monday said that Shahin told detectives that Czuba attacked her “over the conflict in Jerusalem” and that days before the stabbing, Czuba confronted her about what was going on in the Middle East.
At an initial court hearing Monday, Czuba was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated battery and two hate crime counts. He was denied pretrial release because of the gruesome nature of the crimes and because he poses a threat to Shahin, who survived the attack.
It was not clear whether he had legal counsel. The county public defender’s office and district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
'He paid the price for the atmosphere of hate'
Wadea loved soccer and basketball and had just celebrated his sixth birthday, Rehab said.
“And he paid the price for the atmosphere of hate and otherization and dehumanization that, frankly, I think we are seeing here in the United States,” Rehab said.
Shahin had come to the U.S. 12 years ago from the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Wadea's father came to the U.S. nine years ago, and Wadea was born in the U.S.
"I was talking to the father and he said, 'Part of the reason we came here was to escape the settler violence in which situations like this could occur with impunity and it chased us all the way to the United States,'" Rehab said Sunday.
His father said in an interview that aired on “TODAY” Monday: “It’s like a dream. I still didn’t believe my son is gone.”
Tom Namako contributed reporting.