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New Mexico Muslim killings suspect makes first court appearance

There are "no conditions that would keep the community safe" if suspect Muhammad Syed were released from custody, a prosecutor said.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The suspect in a string of slayings that terrified this city's Muslim community faced a judge for the first time on Wednesday and was ordered held until an upcoming detention hearing.

Muhammad Syed, 51, made a court appearance via Zoom and was told he's being charged with the murders of 41-year-old Aftab Hussein, killed on July 26, and 27-year-old Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, slain on Aug. 1.

"The state believes at this time there are no conditions that would keep the community safe with Mr. Syed's release," Bernalillo County Assistant District Attorney Joshua Boone told the court.

A detention hearing in Syed's case was set for Monday, a court spokeswoman said.

Syed heard proceedings through a Pashto interpreter and initially asked to address the court. But he eventually accepted the advice of defense lawyer Megan Mitsunaga and Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judge Renee Torres to remain silent.

"OK, sounds good," Syed said. "Yes, your honor whatever you guys think is the right thing sounds good."

Police said he's also being investigated for possible connections to the recent murders of two other Muslim men in the community.

Muhammad Syed, 51, made his initial court appearance via Zoom.
Muhammad Syed, 51, made his initial court appearance via Zoom.Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court

Hussein was fatally shot near 417 Rhode Island St. NE by a gunman who had "waited behind a bush," according to a criminal complaint. The victim had "excited his vehicle" when "the suspect shot Aftab through the bush multiple times," the court document stated.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was gunned down while he strolled on the sidewalk in front of 420 and 422 Cornell Dr. SE, in what one 911 caller described as a "drive-by" shooting, according to the complaint.

Police recovered 9 mm casings from Cornell Drive SE and those matched a "9mm casing located between the windshield and hood area of" Syed's car, police said in the criminal complaint.

Albuquerque police and FBI agents "received multiple tips in reference to one male, Muhammad Atif Syed," the court document read.

"The tipsters who called in stated that Muhammad was the shooter in the homicides of Muslim men in Albuquerque," the complaint continued. "The tips also provided a vehicle, a gray Volkswagen sedan, as the vehicle driven by Muhammad."

After he was taken into custody by police, Syed told investigators he was headed to Houston "to find a new place for his family to live because the situation in Albuquerque was bad," the complaint read.

"Muhammad denied having any involvement in the murders this this case," according to the court document.

In an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the brother of victim Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said he didn't immediately recognize the suspect's name.

But when he saw Syed's photo, the brother realized he had seen him at the local Islamic Center sometime in April.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain recalled that they chatted briefly during an Eid al-Fitr gathering and at a Ramadan celebration. He recalled Syed struggled with English and said the suspect didn't immediately strike him as a “hostile person.”

Syed seemed like a “family man,” the victim's brother said, because he appeared to have a few children around him.

Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Albuquerque while David K. Li and Daniel Arkin reported from New York City.