A maintenance worker accused in the execution-style shootings of a Queens imam and his aide Saturday faces the possibility of life in prison without parole after being charged Tuesday with first-degree murder.
Oscar Morel, 35, of Miller Avenue in Brooklyn, shuffled into court in shackles and a work shirt from his job in Manhattan and said nothing during his brief appearance before Queens Criminal Court Judge Karen Gopee. The judge ordered him held without bail. Morel wasn’t required to enter a formal plea, officials said.
Outside the Kew Gardens courtroom, Morel’s defense attorney Leonard Ressler, told reporters his client denied killing Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and the cleric’s assistant, Thara Uddin, 64.
Ressler said Morel told him “I didn’t do any of this.”
A five-count criminal complaint unsealed in court accused Morel of fatally shooting Akonjee and Uddin Saturday afternoon as the pair walked in traditional Muslim garb near the intersection of 79th Street and Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park.
The brazen nature and location of the shootings — point-blank on a well-traveled residential street and just two blocks from the victims’ mosque — sparked fears among the city’s large Muslim community that the shooter targeted them because of their faith.
At a funeral service for both men Monday in Brooklyn that police said included close to 2,000 mourners, it was hard to miss the talk of hate as a motive for the killings and the heated anti-Muslim rhetoric of the presidential campaign.
Mayor Bill de Blasio even alluded to the larger political discussion as he spoke to mourners but the NYPD has said they don’t have a motive. In a statement Tuesday, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said “one of the possible motives being explored is whether this was a hate crime. . . . Whether a hate crime was committed in this case, the crime will be vigorously prosecuted and we will seek the most serious penalties that our law allows.”
Family members of the victims at the courthouse Tuesday said they knew why the men died.
The slayings were a hate crime, said Nashua Uddin, the brother of Thara Uddin.
“This is a terrible crime. We need justice,” said Saif Akonjee, the imam’s son.
Prosecutors added the first-degree murder charge Tuesday because two deaths were involved.
First-degree murder has such a stiff maximum sentence that designating the slayings as a hate crime might not have a practical effect on sentencing on all counts, officials said.
First-degree murder in New York State has a maximum sentence of life without parole upon conviction. If Morel is convicted of the killings he could be sentenced to consecutive life terms, according to one legal expert.
Before Morel’s arrest Monday night, police had taken him into custody on unrelated hit-and-run charges the night before. Detectives spent Monday questioning him and putting him a lineup.
Detectives focused on Morel after a hit-and-run crash between an SUV and a bicyclist just 10 minutes after the killings and about three miles away, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said Monday.
The cyclist took down part of the license plate and cops found the SUV about a mile from the hit and run, police said. The vehicle fit the description of the SUV witnesses told detectives they saw flee the scene of the shootings. Cops staked out the vehicle and when Morel approached it, detectives took him into custody.
Armed with a search warrant Monday, investigators then went to Morel’s East New York apartment looking for clues to the killings — part of a dizzying 48-hour effort by NYPD detectives to build a solid case against him.
Police had hoped that if Morel kept a computer in his apartment, it could edge them closer to a motive for the slayings, but they didn’t find one, a police official said.
In court Tuesday, assistant district attorney Peter McCormack told Gopee the NYPD did recover a .38-caliber revolver from Morel’s apartment and noted that the bullets found in the victims matched up with the weapon.
McCormack also told the court Morel identified himself from a still photo captured in a surveillance video that shows him running up behind the two men and fleeing into his Chevy TrailBlazer, which he identified as his vehicle.
But Morel told police he was in the Ozone Park neighborhood Saturday afternoon to take his girlfriend to a doctor’s appointment, McCormack said.
Morel lived alone in a rear basement apartment of a blue-shingled house for about eight months, said the landlord of the Miller Avenue unit, Amado Bautista.
“He was a nice guy. I was surprised when I heard. He never had no problem,” Bautista said Tuesday, not far from where yellow police tape remained near Morel’s unit.
The man’s girlfriend would stay with him every Saturday, Bautista said, adding that Morel worked as a janitor at the New School in Manhattan at night. During the day, he slept, Bautista said.
A spokeswoman for the college said he started working as a campus porter in November 2013.
“While we are unable to comment on his arrest, we are cooperating fully with the authorities in this matter,” spokeswoman Josephine Parr said.
Bautista said he saw Morel’s girlfriend crying outside the apartments with her belongings before police officers escorted her away.
Monday, investigators combing the underground apartment, took bags of evidence, including the revolver and clothing clumsily hidden in a wall, said a law enforcement official.
The clothing appeared to match garments worn by the shooter in surveillance videos, the official added.
Cops found the weapon in the wall after immediately noticing a hole cut into it, with the piece of Sheetrock put back and refastened with screws, the official said.
Detectives then arrested Morel — already in custody at the 107th — late Monday night. He faced two counts of second degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon.
With John Asbury and Maria Alvarez