Aug. 10—As Albuquerque police prepared to search the home of Muhammad Syed, they got an unexpected bonus: They saw the 51-year-old Afghan driving the Volkswagen Jetta they believed had been used in at least one of four killings of Muslim men in the state’s largest city.
That opportunity, police officials said, led to the long-distance tracking — and eventually arrest — of Syed, charged Tuesday in the shooting deaths of two of the men. He also is a suspect in the deaths of the other two men.
Syed’s capture was the culmination of an intense investigation following a series of shootings — seemingly targeting South Asian men — that shook Albuquerque’s Muslim community over a two-week period, officials said. Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Syed faces murder charges in the killings, which garnered the attention of the White House and became national news.
“What law enforcement has done is what we fundamentally, and unfortunately, call [on] them to do at times — to work together with urgency … to get dangerous murderers off the street,” said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.
In a Tuesday afternoon news conference, law enforcement officials said Syed was arrested in connection with the slayings of Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, who was an official with the city of Española. Police continue to investigate Syed’s potential ties to the deaths of 62-year-old Mohammad Ahmadi in November and Naeem Hussain, 25, who was shot to death Friday.
During the news conference, police said they believe Syed is from Afghanistan and came to the United States about five or six years ago. Court records show he has been charged with multiple domestic violence and traffic misdemeanors in Albuquerque — all of them dismissed.
Acting on a tip, police secured a warrant to search his family residence. As they prepared to execute the warrant, Syed left his home in the gray sedan police had identified Sunday as being connected to the shootings, Albuquerque police Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said.
Syed drove east, and with the assistance of state police, officers from Albuquerque stopped him in Santa Rosa. At the same time, Albuquerque police’s SWAT team searched the Syed family residence and evacuated the occupants, Hartsock said.
Hartsock said Syed’s sons were questioned by police following their father’s arrest and were released.
Hartsock added multiple firearms were found at Syed’s home — and another was found in his car. Hartsock said the gun found in Syed’s car, and another found at his residence, were matched to the scenes of Hussein’s and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s murders.
Authorities said Syed’s motives were unclear, though in a news release Albuquerque police said “the offender knew the victims to some extent and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.”
Hartsock acknowledged police had received information concerning potential motives relating to Syed’s possible prejudice against a different sect of Islam than his own.
Police said bullet casings found at the scene connecting the shootings of Hussain and Hussein, who were killed within six days of one another.
As for why law enforcement did not label the killings hate crimes, or the perpetrator a serial killer prior to Syed’s capture, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said that would have been a reckless decision.
“We stood strong and we held the line that we weren’t going to … use any of those labels at that point in time because it would have been irresponsible for us as a police department to say that, and further drag fear into a community that was already in fear,” he said.
Medina added police are still unclear whether either label would be appropriate for the four killings.
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s death stunned people in Española, who had taken to him as he worked in the city’s land use and planning department. Former Mayor Javier Sanchez — who hired Hussain to head the department a little over a year ago — said that while Syed’s arrest provides a little closure, questions about his motives and why he targeted Hussain linger.
“What this really shows is that human frailty exposes itself in so many different ways, and whether it is directed outward or inwardly because of race or religion, it just doesn’t seem like it’s something that we can escape,” Sanchez said.
Prior to his job in Española, Hussain worked as a staffer on US Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s campaign. Despite the capture of a suspect, Stansbury said the greater Albuquerque community is still grieving.
“Our community has lost brothers, fathers, husbands, uncles and beloved friends,” she said.
The killings, which became national news in part due to the possibility they could have been racially motivated, continue to cast a pall over the community, she said.
“Our communities have been bracing to respond to the potential of hate-driven crimes and the impacts of Islamophobia and other racist acts that have impacted our communities for far too long,” Stansbury said. “We must continue to engage … in healing and to recognize that open lines of communication between our communities and law enforcement is what helped to put an end to these specific tragedies.”
Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, thanked police Tuesday for their combined efforts in capturing Syed.
“I’m a big fan of [the] law enforcement today standing before you,” Assed said. “I wanted to make an emphatic statement today about how thankful and immensely [Albuquerque’s Muslim community is] for all the hard work.”
Assed also said he was humbled by the support of the Muslim community in Albuquerque received in the wake of the four shootings, noting the efforts from law enforcement almost brought him to tears.
“We hope and pray that things are brought to a conclusion, and there’s some closure for the families soon,” he said. “We respect, certainly, the criminal justice system and the presumption of innocence … this is just the beginning.”