Police in Albuquerque said they arrested the “primary suspect” in the killings of four Muslim men in New Mexico’s largest city – deaths that raised fears in the community and led to increased security at mosques and schools.
Muhammad Syed, 51, of Albuquerque, was charged in two of the killings and was called a suspect by police in the two other slayings.
Chief Harold Medina said Tuesday the arrest happened after authorities tracked down a vehicle linked to one of the killings.
Authorities sought help Monday searching for a vehicle that appeared to be the one discovered Tuesday. Police said in a news release they suspected the vehicle was used in the homicides.
The common elements in the deaths were the victims’ race and religion, officials said, and authorities discovered a possible link between the killings. Authorities released photos, hoping people could help identify the car, and offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan, was the first victim, killed Nov. 7. Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, were killed July 26 and Aug. 1, and Naeem Hussain, 25, was shot to death Friday, according to investigators. The last three victims were from Pakistan.
Syed faces murder charges in the deaths of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain and Aftab Hussein. According to Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock, Syed is suspected of “involvement” in the two other deaths.
Hartsock said firearms found in Syed’s home and car through search warrants were matched to bullet casings at two crime scenes.
Syed had a “possible personal relationship” with the first victim who was killed in November, Mohammad Ahmadi, Hartsock said. Syed has not been charged in connection with Ahmadi’s death, but remains a primary suspect, Hartsock said.
“Detectives discovered evidence that shows the offender knew the victims to some extent and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings,” Albuquerque police said in a release.
Hartsock said police were still investigating the details of any potential connections between the suspect and the four victims.
Originally from Afghanistan, Syed has been living in the U.S. for the last several years, Hartsock said. He had “a few minor misdemeanor arrests,” including for domestic violence, Hartsock said.
Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, brother of one of the victims, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said he felt relieved about the arrest but needed to know more about the suspect and the motive.
“This gives us hope that we will have (the) truth come out,” he said. “We need to know why.”
Albuquerque authorities had bolstered security measures as worries mounted within the Muslim community over the ambush-style killings, the most recent happening Friday.
Khalid Emshadi, a Republican candidate for New Mexico’s House of Representatives, had campaign events planned for Friday – but he said fear of a possible serial killer targeting Muslims in Albuquerque could keep him home.
“I’m thinking to cancel them,” said Emshadi, 44, a Muslim who emigrated with his wife from Libya to the USA in 2008. He’s lived in New Mexico’s most populous city for more than a year.
Emshadi said the killings made him and fellow Muslims nervous to practice their Islamic rituals at mosques. “We think something bad is going to happen if we just start praying, (like) a crazy person comes inside and shoots us,” he said.
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Samia Assed, an Albuquerque-based Muslim community activist and organizer, said she knew the third victim, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain. Her fellow civic engagement worker was due to get married in September, Assed told USA TODAY.
“Muhammad was part of a cricket team, and his whole cricket team left town the next day (after he was killed),” Assed said.
“These are young men who come to America for the peace of mind of just living a life and not having to worry about the issues that they left back home,” she said. ”Nobody wants to face this kind of fear.”
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City officials, along with state and local law enforcement, heightened security efforts as authorities investigated.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said police was protecting mosques during prayer times. The city organized home food deliveries and access to trauma services through the Albuquerque Community Safety Department for those who need them.
“We are outraged by these attacks and will not relent in our pursuit of justice for those we have lost,” Keller said in a statement.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said additional state police would patrol Albuquerque.
Police ramped up their presence near Muslim-affiliated schools and worked with the University of New Mexico’s police department in preparation for the fall semester. Albuquerque Public Schools worked with the city on addressing student safety, Keller said, noting the school year starts Wednesday for most.
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Police provided the Islamic Center of New Mexico with extra security in addition to the mosque’s own, Assed said.
“This is foreign to the community” of about 4,000 Muslims in Albuquerque, she said. “It was a big surprise to have it in sequence this way within the Muslim community.”
“The authorities have been amazing, they really stepped up,” said Assed, who organized a community prayer Tuesday night in memory of the four shooting victims.
Contributing: The Associated Press