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Motive for imam shooting death still unclear, police say

Oscar Morel, in a court appearance Tuesday, is

Oscar Morel, in a court appearance Tuesday, is charged in the execution-style shootings in Queens of and imam and his assistant. Investigators are still working to establish a motive in the killings. Credit: Pool / Dennis A. Clark

Investigators are delving into the cellphone used by a Brooklyn man to find a motive for why he allegedly shot and killed a Queens imam and an aide Saturday, high-ranking NYPD officials said Wednesday.

Despite many in the city’s Islamic community suggesting that anti-Muslim sentiment fueled the afternoon execution-style shootings of Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said investigators don’t know yet what motivated the attack.

“I know many in the community feel it is a hate crime,” Bratton told reporters Wednesday. “We can’t confirm that and I am not going to confirm that at this stage.”

Prosecutors have charged Oscar Morel, 35, of Miller Avenue in East New York, with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in the Saturday afternoon shootings.

Akonjee and Uddin were each shot in the back of the head at point-blank range as they walked in traditional Muslim garb near 79th Street and Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park, police said.

NYPD computer crime experts are searching Morel’s cellphone, checking through websites he visited in the hopes of finding a motive, said Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.

Cops found pictures on the phone and investigators have spoken to Morel’s relatives but Boyce said nothing has shed light on what could have sparked the shootings.

“From family and friends, the ones we talked to, they cannot tell us why he did this,” Boyce said.

Morel, who worked as a janitor at The New School in Manhattan, is being held without bail. Police found a .38-caliber revolver in his basement apartment and bullets taken from the victims were matched to the gun, officials have said.

He is scheduled to appear in Queens Criminal Court Thursday for the court appointment of counsel, as well as to let his lawyer know if he intends to testify before a grand jury, said a law enforcement official.

Morel “self identified” himself on videos taken near the crime scene, Boyce said. Detectives initially took Morel into custody Sunday after suspecting him as the driver of an SUV involved in a hit-and-run crash that occurred not far from the killings shortly afterward.

Detectives tracked the SUV involved in the hit-and-run to Morel and ultimately made a connection to the homicides after witnesses told them they saw a vehicle of the same make, model and color, fleeing after the shootings, police said.

Tuesday, an attorney representing Morel said he denied carrying out the killings.

If convicted on the charge of first-degree murder, Morel faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

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