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Police arrest suspect in killings of Muslim men

August 9—Five days after Albuquerque investigators disclosed that they believed the recent killings of Muslim men around the city may be related, they took a suspect into custody.

Muhammad Syed, 51, from Afghanistan, was arrested late Monday night outside of Santa Rosa. He was heading east on Interstate 40, toward Texas.

At a news conference in Albuquerque on Tuesday afternoon, police announced that Syed is charged in two of the four recent homicides — that of Aftab Hussein on July 26 and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain on Aug. 1. They said bullet casings found at the two scenes were likely fired from the same gun — which was found when investigators executed a search warrant.

Detectives are working with the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office to determine if he should be charged in the two others — the Nov. 7 fatal shooting of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, and the Aug. 5 fatal shooting of Naeem Hussain, 25. However, investigators say he is the “most likely person of interest or suspect in the case.”

The crimes gained national and international attention and a combined $30,000 reward was being offered for information that led to a suspect’s arrest and conviction. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris denounced the killings on Twitter saying “hate has no place in America.”

And the city’s Muslim community was deeply shaken and scared — with many saying they were staying home or leaving town, afraid that they could be the next target of what at first appeared to be a series of random attacks.

On Tuesday, investigators disclosed that in fact the evidence showed Syed knew the victims “to some extent” and “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.” An arrest warrant affidavit was not available Tuesday night and it is unclear who Syed’s attorney will be.

Addressing questions about whether the conflict was due to tensions between members of different sects of Islam — Syed was reportedly Sunni and his daughter reportedly married someone practicing Shia Islam — Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said the motive for the shootings is still being fully explored.

“We do have some information about those events taking place,” Hartsock said. “But we’re not really clear if that was the actual motive or if it was part of the motive or if there’s a bigger picture that we’re missing. So what’s really important is we’re still investigating.”

Hartsock said at this time Syed is the only person facing charges. He said detectives interviewed his two sons and they have been released.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Syed could face additional charges as the investigation continues.

“We’re also working with our federal partners on the possibility of filing and pursuing federal charges at the same time if there is an appropriate federal statute,” Torrez said, addressing the bulk of his comments specifically to Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s brother who was sitting on the sidelines at the news conference.

Hundreds of tips

Tips that led to Syed’s arrest came from within the Muslim community.

“Hundreds of tips have come in at the very least that have been thoroughly reviewed and gone through, dozens of interviews took place,” Hartsock said. “We started to focus in on Mr. Syed and last night secured a search warrant for his residence near Gibson and Carlisle in Southeast Albuquerque. As we were getting ready to execute that search warrant we saw him load into a vehicle — as a matter of fact a vehicle we believe was used in the homicides that we put out on the poster — and we followed him.”

New Mexico State Police, APD and the FBI stopped Syed’s car outside of Santa Rosa, about 115 miles from his home, and he was taken into custody as a SWAT team executed a search warrant on the home he shared with his family.

“Multiple firearms were recovered from that home that are continuously being tested,” Hartsock said. “But right now we believe that at least one of them inside the home and one of them inside the car that was pulled over are matching to our two crime scenes on Rhode Island and Cornell.”

Police said they believe Syed came to New Mexico about five or six years ago.

Court documents show Syed had been arrested three times on misdemeanor battery charges, two of which involved domestic violence against his wife and son. Otherwise his only other contacts with law enforcement were for traffic violations, although he was once arrested for resisting an officer during a traffic stop.

In 2017, Syed was charged with battery after his daughter’s boyfriend reported Syed, his son and wife found them in a car together, pulled him out and started punching and kicking him.

The boyfriend told the police at that time that the family did not want them to be in a relationship. He didn’t say why.

That case was dismissed because the victim did not want to proceed.

In May 2018, Syed was arrested following a fight with his wife at the New Mexico Human Services Department office in Albuquerque. Syed’s wife told police that it had been her first time driving and Syed began to “curse, scream and yell as to why she is not a good driver and as to why she cannot learn quickly,” according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court .

Syed’s wife said he pulled her hair and kicked her out of the car and made her walk. Then, she said, when she got to the office much later he grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. HSD staff corroborated the story and Syed was charged with battery against a household member. Those charges were later dismissed because the victim did not wish to proceed.

Later that year, Syed was arrested again, this time charged with aggravated battery, not causing great bodily harm.

In that case, Syed’s son reported his father was hitting his mother and that his sister tried to restrain him, according to another criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court. Syed’s son said that when he got involved his father hit him on the back of the head with a large metal slotted spoon, cutting him. He said his father routinely beat him and his mother but she did not want to report it to the police.

That case was dismissed because Syed complied with the prosecution’s conditions.

Cooperation key

Tuesday’s news conference was packed with political and law enforcement leaders who said over and over again that cooperation between multiple agencies was the key to the arrest. The FBI formed a task force of more than 100 investigators, intelligence analysts and other experts from many different federal agencies.

“I stand with everyone here today feeling positive about the work of law enforcement officers about what happens when we are really clear about public safety and focusing on communities, particularly in this situation that we know were — and can be — at risk,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “This is the kind of work, this collaboration, that yields real results. This is law enforcement and all partners at their best — it is what the state and this community both deserve and should expect in any context.”

US Rep. Melanie Stansbury, who knew Muhammad Afzaal Hussain from when he worked on her campaign, addressed “the national profile that these tragedies have garnered across the United States.”

“The terror has not only affected New Mexico’s Muslim community, but our Muslim communities across the US,” Stansbury said. “Our communities have been bracing to respond to the potential of hate driven crimes, and the impacts of Islamophobia and other racist acts that have impacted our communities for far too long.”

Ahmad Assed, a defense attorney and the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, thanked law enforcement on behalf of the Muslim community and said he had teared up with gratitude.

“We hope and pray that things are brought to a conclusion and there’s closure for the families soon,” Assed said. “We respect, certainly the criminal justice system and the presumption of innocence and we understand that this is just the beginning.”

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