A Brooklyn man is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday for arraignment on charges that he shot and killed an Ozone Park imam and his assistant on Saturday afternoon.
Oscar Morel, 35, of East New York was escorted out of the 107th Precinct‘s Flushing stationhouse (which also serves as headquarters of NYPD Patrol Borough Queens South) on Monday night in handcuffs. He’s facing two counts of first- and second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon for the cold-blooded execution of Imam Maulana Akonjee and Thara Uddin as they walked home from prayers at an Ozone Park mosque on the afternoon of Aug. 13.
Akonjee and Uddin, who resided on the same block of 102nd Avenue, were walking northbound on 79th Street approaching Liberty Avenue at about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday when the gunman approached them and, without saying a word, shot them both in the head. They were later pronounced dead at Jamaica Hospital.
The double homicide sent shock throughout the community, which has a large population of Bangladeshi Muslims. Hundreds took to the streets to call on the NYPD to investigate the murders as a hate crime.
Police have not ruled out the possibility that the murders were motivated by hate, but the actual motive for the crime remains under investigation.
“Their deaths are a devastating loss to their families and the community that they served as men of peace,” Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said in a statement on Tuesday. “While the motivation for this violent act is still unclear and continues to be investigated, one of the possible motives being explored of whether this was a hate crime. …. Regardless, however, whether a hate crime was committed in this case, the crime will be vigorously prosecuted and we will seek the most serious penalties that our law allows.”
Through their exhaustive, 48-hour investigation, detectives were able to track down Morel after the getaway vehicle used in the shooting — a black GMC Trailblazer — was involved in a hit-and-run accident 10 minutes after the double homicide at the corner of Pine and Pitkin avenues in Brooklyn.
“We immediately responded to that location and pulled video from that corner,” Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at a press conference on Monday. An examination concluded that the Trailblazer involved in the accident matched the getaway vehicle.
Following interviews with eyewitness and a search of the East New York area, police were able to locate the SUV. Cops then staked out the vehicle, waiting for the driver to approach it.
“That person emerged at about 10 o’clock [Sunday] night and got into the vehicle,” Boyce said. “Detectives from the Fugitive Task Force Unit approached the car, and then he rammed the detectives’ car several times in an effort to get away. He was placed under arrest without any further incident and brought back to the precinct for more debriefing.”
Morel was subsequently identified by eyewitnesses to the shooting and accident as the individual involved in both. During a search of his home, The New York Times reported, the handgun allegedly used to kill Akonjee and Uddin was found hidden inside a wall.
Morel faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of first-degree murder, District Attorney Brown said.
Morel’s arrest occurred hours after funeral services were held in Brooklyn for Akonjee and Uddin. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who attended the prayer service, sought to assure the city’s Muslim community on Monday night that police would protect them from further harm and bring the killer to justice.
“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,” de Blasio said. “So I assured the members of the community that the NYPD would be out in force protecting community institutions, protecting Muslim communities all over the city, that will be all of the members of the NYPD … We will work together to encourage the kind of harmony, the kind of unity that New Yorkers believe in, and we’ll work against these divisive voices that have become so strong in our country.”