A man accused of fatally shooting a New York City imam and his assistant last week has been charged with first-degree murder, authorities said.
Police said Monday night that they had charged Oscar Morel, 35, of Brooklyn, with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Morel was taken into custody Sunday night after he was tracked down through his role in a hit-and-run not long after the shooting in Queens, according to police officials.
On Tuesday, Morel was also charged with first-degree murder, an added count that brings with it a possible penalty of life in prison without parole, said Richard Brown, the Queens district attorney.
“While the motivation for this violent act is still unclear and continues to be investigated, one of the possible motives being explored is whether this was a hate crime,” Brown said in a statement. “Crimes motivated by bias or hate are deplorable and can never be tolerated.”
Brown said that the charges were upgraded to first-degree murder because Morel is accused of intentionally killing two people “during the same transaction.”
The shooting deaths of Imam Maulama Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Uddin, roiled the Bangladeshi immigrant community in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens and reverberated far beyond those streets. The two men were shot Saturday at point-blank range in broad daylight. Akonjee, 55, and Uddin, 64, were pronounced dead not long after at a nearby hospital.
“Their deaths are a devastating loss to their families and the community that they served as men of peace,” Brown said. “I want to extend my deepest sympathy to the families of Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin and assure them that the law enforcement community will work tirelessly to ensure that justice is done in this case.”
The killings sparked unease across the area, where many residents are convinced that the two Muslim men were killed in a hate crime. The violence came during a year marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign,
Authorities have not determined a motive for the attack, Robert Boyce, chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, said at a news briefing Monday. Boyce said police were exploring whether it was a hate crime or motivated by something else.
“We’re still drilling down on that as we go forward,” Boyce said. Officials had not immediately found any connection between Morel or Akonjee, he said.
Officials said that after the shooting Saturday, they looked for a black Chevrolet TrailBlazer that fled the area and learned that it was linked to a hit-and-run that happened the same afternoon.
Police later found the SUV, and when a man – later identified as Morel – got into the car and was approached by detectives, he rammed their car to try to get away, Boyce said. This man was arrested, Boyce said, and a witness who said he saw the hit-and-run identified Morel as the driver in that accident.
Morel worked at the New School, a university in New York, school officials said Wednesday.
“Oscar Morel has been a porter at The New School since November 2013,” the school said in a statement. “While we are unable to comment on his arrest, we are cooperating fully with the authorities in this matter.”
A large crowd of mourners attended the funeral Monday for Akonjee and Uddin. Among the crowd was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who promised justice and protection for the city’s Muslims.
“We know there are voices all over this country spewing hate,” de Blasio said during his remarks. “We’re not going to listen to those voices that try to divide us.”
Morel is scheduled to next appear in Queens Criminal Court on Thursday.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Mark Berman, Abigail Hauslohner