Police say they found the gun they believe was used in the murders in his apartment, as well as clothing matching the suspect description, The New York Times said. Morel has been charged with the murders of imam Maulama Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Uddin.
In a press conference earlier in the day on Aug. 15, the New York Police Department announced the arrest in the shooting deaths. Later, in the evening, police led Morel outside on a “perp walk” past a phalanx of reporters. However, Morel did not answer any questions:
Akonjee and Uddin were shot in the back of the head in a brazen daylight attack as they walked down the street after prayer services at a Queens mosque in Ozone Park in the middle of the day on Aug. 13. Their funeral Aug. 15 – shortly before the suspect’s name was announced – was attended by thousands.
At the scene of the deaths, people had gathered to declare the murders a hate crime; some blamed the rhetoric of Republican nominee Donald Trump for inflaming sentiments against Muslims.
However, in the days immediately after the murders, police were hesitant to declare the deaths a hate crime, saying they had no evidence that Akonjee and Uddin were targeted for their religious faith. Morel’s alleged motive remains unclear, although police said at the news conference that they were not taking a hate crime motive off the table.
Authorities said Morel is Hispanic; although his brother has posted Trump photos on Facebook, Morel’s political beliefs are not yet known. New York newspapers have also floated the possibility that Morel could have been a hitman or engaged in a neighborhood beef with the victims; none of this is confirmed. Authorities are still saying they just don’t know. Morel’s lawyer says he denies killing the men.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Police Tracked Morel Down When His Car Struck a Bicycle & Are Investigating Whether Someone Hired Him as a Hitman, Reports Say
The suspect’s escape unraveled when, in his haste to flee, he struck a bicyclist not far from the crime scene, allowing detectives to match the vehicle description back to eyewitness descriptions from the double murder, top police officials said in a Monday news conference.
Police tracked the suspect down “when his fleeing car hit a bicyclist and then an unmarked NYPD vehicle,” The New York Post said.
Watch the press conference:
Armed with the vehicle description (a black GMC sports utility vehicle), and another eyewitness (the bicyclist), police began hunting for the suspect vehicle.
“The individual was apprehended when members of the NYPD spotted a vehicle matching a description of the getaway car wanted in connection with the killings, according to police sources,” said PIX 11. “They said the driver tried to flee but crashed into an NYPD car and was subsequently taken into custody for questioning.”
NBC says squad cars boxed the man’s car in, but he allegedly rammed into one; officers ordered Morel to surrender with weapons drawn, and they took him into custody on the night of Aug. 14.
The New York Daily News said Morel was at the murder scene several minutes before it occurred, and added, “Detectives were also working a theory that somebody hired Morel as a hit man.” This was not confirmed, though.
In an interview with The New York Times, Akonjee’s oldest son said the family wants to know the motive, including whether Morel planned the crime himself or was hired to do it.
In late August, Morel’s attorney said Morel told him he did not commit the murders, and added that said he “knew nothing” about a gun found in his home, said NBC News.
2. Morel Lives in a Basement Apartment & Has Only a Minor Drug Arrest on His Record
At the police news conference, officials said they believed Morel worked in a warehouse. He lived in a basement apartment in Brooklyn, The New York Daily News said. The newspaper added that Morel’s only previous brush with the law is a misdemeanor pot possession arrest.
The gun was allegedly found in a wall cavity in Morel’s apartment.
Surveillance video captured the moment that the imam and his assistant were gunned down, although the images are far away and grainy.
The video shows the gunman walk up behind Akonjee and Uddin. The men then topple to the ground, as the shooter walks away in the direction he came from.
A sketch artist drew the suspect based on eyewitness descriptions:
There were initial reports that the murders might be a robbery; however, Akonjee had $1,000 on him, and it was not taken, said Fox News.
The Washington Times said those who knew the slain men did not believe unconfirmed reports that the motive might have emanated from a parking dispute or neighborhood beef. Emotions remained heated in the Muslim community around the mosque, where people demanded justice and said divisive political rhetoric could have fueled the attack.
3. Akonjee & Uddin Were Described as Pious Men & Morel’s Brother Says The Family Was Not Angry With Muslims Other Than on 9/11
Morel’s brother, Alvin, spoke to The New York Daily News, which reported he was stunned and insisted, “This is nothing like him. My brother is a decent person. I don’t know what happened.”
Alvin Morel told the newspaper their mother had cancer, and the only time the family members felt “hatred” for Muslims was “during 9/11. Other than that, we never felt a hatred with nobody.”
Alvin told The New York Post that anger was temporary and added, “We’re Catholic-school kids — we don’t do this. He’s a good guy.”
On Facebook, Alvin Morel expressed his shock, writing, “I cant believe what has happened. I dont believe whats injustice. GOD help my brother mother father and my self.” Photos he posted on Facebook indicate the Morel family had lived in Brooklyn since the 1980s.
On July 18, Alvin posted a photo of Trump on his wall, without comment; he posted a photo that pronounced Trump had won the nomination in May. In March, he posted a photo of Trump as the Batman movie character, the Joker, and Chris Christie as the Penguin and another photo of Trump bearing the Republican nominee’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” It’s not clear, however, whether Oscar shared his brother’s views on Trump, and a social media presence for the alleged killer himself was not immediately found.
The New York Times said that those who knew Akonjee and Uddin described them as religious and pious and said they had no obvious enemies.
Akonjee’s son, Naim, told Fox News that his father worked in the Bronx as an imam before serving in two Queens mosques. “He always wants peace,” Naim said, according to Fox. “Why did they kill my father?”
Police sources had said earlier, though, that they believe the murderer “knew the imam and knew his schedule,” Fox News said, quoting The New York Post.
“It’s a very rare thing to see a cleric killed,” New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio said in the news conference, saying there was much fear in the community.
Reporters asked Morel whether he shot the men because they were Muslim as New York police walked him to a waiting car, but he did not answer, said Newsday. Morel said nothing to waiting reporters.
4. The New York Mayor & Thousands of Others Paid Their Respects at The Men’s Funeral
Akonjee and Uddin were laid to rest the same day Morel’s arrest was announced. Their service was attended by thousands, including New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton, said The New York Post.
The Post said cries rang out of “We are Americans, just like you!”
The New York mayor called the men “two good men… two men of the cloth, it pulls at all our hearts and pulls at all our souls.”
People at the scene of the murders had blamed the political climate:
The gathering grew shortly after the men were killed, and they were described as well-liked, important figures in their community.
5. Morel Has a Girlfriend But Lived Alone & Worked as a Porter at a School
Morel’s landlord told The New York Daily News that Morel lived alone; he said Morel told him that he cleaned a school for a living, but police said in their press conference that they thought he worked in a warehouse. According to The New York Times, New School said he worked as a porter for the university.
The imam and his assistant were shot “while walking home from afternoon prayers” by a “lone shooter” and witnesses described it as a “targeted attack,” The Daily News said.
ABC News says Morel was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon. On Aug. 16, prosecutors added a charge of first-degree murder, calling the crime a coldblooded and premeditated “assassination,” said The New York Times.