By Patrick Donachie
An East New York man was arraigned Tuesday in the murders of an Ozone Park imam and his associate in broad daylight while Muslim community members expressed fear and frustration about the safety of their families during a funeral ceremony Monday afternoon, blocks from where the killings occurred.
Oscar Morel, 35, was charged with murder and criminal possession of a weapon in the Saturday slayings of Maulana Akonjee, 55, the imam at the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque and his associate, Thata Uddin, 54, the Queens district attorney said. The mosque is located at 76-18 Glenmore Ave. in Ozone Park,
Still wearing his New School janitor’s uniform, Morel appeared in Queens Criminal Court Tuesday where he faced an additional first-degree murder charge during his arraignment as his family wept in the courtroom.
Murder one is a premeditated act. Morel was held without bail and faces in life in prison if found guilty.
Queens DA Richard Brown said the motive behind the murders was unclear but his office was still investigating the possibility of a hate crime.
Shortly after prayers, Morel, who is Hispanic, allegedly approached the two victims wearing traditional Muslim clothing from behind at the corner of Liberty Avenue and 79th Street and opened fire, shooting both men in the head, police said. The two Bangladeshi victims who lived in Ozone Park were taken to Jamaica Hospital and pronounced dead, according to police.
NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce detailed the progression of the investigation at a news conference Monday evening after Morel was brought in for questioning. Boyce said officers found a video of the murder scene that included a black GMC Trailblazer leaving quickly, while three miles away in Brooklyn, at the corner of Pine and Pitkin, there was a hit-and-run car accident shortly after the shootings. They canvassed the area and found a similar car.
After watching the car for several hours, officers approached Morel when he tried to enter the vehicle, according to Boyce. Morel allegedly rammed the officers’ car several times in a getaway attempt, but was placed under arrest, police said. During a search of Morel’s apartment, officers found a .38 caliber Taurus revolver, police said..
Funeral services were held for both the imam and his assistant at the Grant Avenue Municipal Parking Field at 581 Grant Ave. in Brooklyn. Thousands attended the services, and speakers included Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James.
De Blasio said he came on behalf of all New Yorkers, and promised there would be a greater police presence to ensure that people of the Muslim faith would feel safe when walking to and from mosques and when they were practicing their religion.
“For all those here who want justice, we want justice, too, and we will get it,” de Blasio said, alluding to what he said was angry rhetoric in the national dialogue decrying Muslim Americans. “I look around us and I see proud citizens. I will not let them tear us apart. We will not let them tear us apart.”
Signs calling for justice were scattered throughout the crowd.
Speakers from the community and members of the audience also chanted demands for justice under the hot summer sun. The president of the Center for Islamic-American Relations asked the authorities to continue to pursue leads involving a hate crime and announced a $5,000 donation to the family of each murdered man. At the conclusion of the speakers’ remarks, a prayer was said for the two dead men, the crowd responding to the moment with silence and sadness. The two bodies were then removed for burial.
Laskar Faruq, a Jackson Heights resident, expressed anxiety about the safety of his two children, who often walk to and from school.
“Always we pray that they will go and come home safely, but there is no safety now,” he said. He also spoke about the negative impact he believed presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric was having on some Americans’ perceptions of Muslims. “When we walk, sometimes in their mind, they’re thinking all Muslims are troublemaking people,” he observed.
Nearby one of four young Muslim men said he had prayed with the iman for years and he was well-respected in the community.
“In our religion,” he said, “if you kill one person, it’s like killing everyone.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona