A man the NYPD has in custody for a nearby hit-and-run is also a “strong person of interest” in the daylight slaying of a Queens imam and his associate, city officials announced this afternoon.
Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce declined to name the man, whom he identified as a 36-year-old Hispanic from East New York. The man has not yet been charged in connection to the murder of Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his friend and assistant Thara Uddin, 64—a crime that has shaken the Muslim community.
“There’s a lot of fear in the community,” de Blasio said this afternoon at 1 Police Plaza, shortly after speaking a funeral service for Akonjee. “It’s a very rare thing to see a cleric killed and members of the Muslim community have been on edge because of the atmosphere already that existed in this country, particularly over the last few months in our national debate.”
But it’s unclear yet whether the men, who were attacked from behind, were targeted for their Muslim faith.
“That’s certainly on the table, a hate crime, right now. We can’t explain why his person was there,” Boyce said of the person of interest. “We’ll put those facts together and go forward in exploring his life.”
Detectives arriving on the scene of the weekend killing were able to pull video surveillance from the neighborhood, and they found footage of a GMC Trailblazer fleeing the scene, Boyce said. They also found video of a man running away from the crime scene and into that car, and footage of the car heading out into traffic and away from the neighborhood.
Police ran the car’s plates, and turned up a report of a hit-and-run just 3 miles away that happened shortly after the shooting. They tracked down the car and its driver, and watched the man until he emerged from a home and got into the car at 10 p.m. last night, Boyce said. When detectives approached the car, the man rammed their car several times in an effort to escape, but he was eventually brought in for questioning—where a cyclist who witnessed the hit-and-run picked him out of a line-up and identified him as the driver.
So far he has been charged in connection with ramming the detectives’ car and the hit-and-run, but not in the killing of the imam, Boyce said. Police have custody of his car and are searching his home but have not yet found a gun.
The NYPD has not yet found any connections between the person of interest and the two men who were killed.
“We believe this is a strong person of interest right now,” Boyce said. “We believe. because of the evidence we’ve acquired thus far, we strongly believe this is the individual.”