Police have charged a Brooklyn man for the brazen murders of a Queens imam and his associate on Saturday. Oscar Morel, 35, was taken into NYPD custody Sunday night after allegedly ramming his car into an unmarked police car around 11 p.m. in the Ozone Park neighborhood — the same community where the killings occurred. Police identified Morel on Monday evening, and said he’d been charged with two counts of second-degree murder, according to the New York Times. He’s also facing two counts of criminal possession of a weapon after police searched his home and found what they believe to be the revolver used in the killing and clothes worn by the gunman in surveillance video.
Police have not yet named a motive in the killing of the 55-year-old imam Maulama Akonjee and his friend and assistant 64-year-old Thara Uddin, both Bangladeshi immigrants and religious leaders in their Queens neighborhood. The men were shot in the head at close range in broad daylight around 2 p.m. on Saturday. The victims were a block away from the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque, where both men, who wore traditional Muslim garb, had just finished afternoon prayers.
NYPD chief of detectives Robert Boyce said it’s still unclear if Morel had any connection to the two victims. “We’re still drilling down on it,” he said, adding that it’s “certainly on the table that it’s a hate crime.
A home-surveillance video of the shooting, released Sunday, shows the killer approaching the two men from behind. He rushes up behind them and lifts his arm and aims at the back of their heads; the two men crumple to the ground. The shooter appears to stuff the gun in his pocket and walk calmly away from the scene.
The footage showed the suspect getting into a black GMC SUV, and by tracking the make and model, police were able to connect the shooting to a hit-and-run involving a cyclist that occurred several miles away in Brooklyn.
Police put a special surveillance team on the vehicle, and it was found parked on the street in East New York. Officials say that when Morel got in the car on Sunday night, he rammed a police vehicle as he tried to flee.
Ozone Park’s tight-knit Muslim community has been reeling from the cold-blooded crimes. Residents are on edge, as many fear Akonjee and Uddin, both well-liked and respected, were targeted because of their faith. Neighbors are calling it a hate crime. “This was absolutely a hate crime,” a local resident, Bazlur Rahman, told the New York Times. “This is a busy intersection filled with people, and the two people killed were the ones in Muslim clothing. How is that anything other than targeting?”
The NYPD Hate Crimes Unit is working on the case alongside homicide detectives, but has not said with certainty that a religious or ethnic bias prompted the attack. A police source told the New York Post that the crime appears calculated, and authorities believe the gunman “knew the imam and knew his schedule.” Sources told the Daily News that the murders may have stemmed from a neighborhood “feud” between Muslims and Hispanics, and the gunman may have been seeking revenge after Muslim men beat up a Hispanic man in the area a few weeks ago. The NYPD has not corroborated any of those allegations.
The mosque held a prayer service for Akonjee on Monday afternoon. “We will never be able to replace [him],” Badrul Khan, the founder of Al-Furqan, told the Post. “He was the best translator of the faith.”
This post has been updated throughout.