Police released a sketch Sunday of a suspect in the fatal execution-style shootings of an imam and his assistant Saturday in Ozone Park and authorities sought more video of the brazen killings two blocks from the mosque where the victims worshipped.
Videos and eyewitness identification could be crucial in the investigation into the deaths of Maulana Akonjee, 55, an imam at the al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque, and Thara Uddin, 64, of Queens, an assistant.
The gunman, who wore a dark polo shirt and shorts, was seen on video surveillance and by witnesses running from the scene with a gun, police said. The NYPD sent out a police artist’s drawing Sunday depicting the shooter as a dark-haired man with a heavy stubble and thick, but clear-rimmed eyeglasses.
Both victims worshipped at the Islamic mosque on Glenmore Avenue and 77th Street. They were both shot in the head from behind at about 2 p.m. on Liberty Avenue and 79th Street, police said. Akonjee and Uddin were pronounced dead at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, officials said.
They were wearing religious garb when shot — a factor leading some community members to conclude the execution-style killings were motivated by religious hatred. Police have not said they have enough evidence to support that theory or any other motive.
A law enforcement official said Akonjee had been carrying $1,000 in cash, which was not taken.
A surveillance video showed both victims walking into and out of the frame, and then the shooter coming up behind them before leaving the frame, a law enforcement official said.
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped short of saying religious hatred fueled the killer but acknowledged the animosity in some quarters toward the city’s Islamic community.
“When religious leaders are targeted, we all bear the pain those in Ozone Park feel most personally today,” DeBlasio said. “While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulana Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we do know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry.”
City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz arrived at the mosque before the afternoon prayer Sunday.
“This is just a terrible loss of life,” Stringer said. “ ... We must work with the city ... to make sure you have the resources you need and make sure you have the respect of city government. We stand with you and we support you.”
Katz said New York City “stands with our Muslim brothers and sisters. You have a right to pray with honor and respect.”
The victims were “not only men of worship ... they were family, they were cousins and they were someone’s son,” Katz said.
A high-ranking NYPD official said investigators are exercising caution in determining a motive so as not to jeopardize their case.
“When you get a head shot, head shots are always indicative of trying to kill somebody ... it sounds like an execution,” the official said. “Some people in the community say this is a hate crime. Hey, it very well could be and we will always keep that option open. But we can’t call it a hate crime right now without knowing it.”
Badrul Khan, 61, who founded the mosque nearly two decades ago and is its chief adviser, was convinced the shooter targeted the victims because of their faith.
“This is a hate crime, nothing else is involved,” he said. “He’s a good imam. We lose one of the very humble guys.”
Khan said because of Akonjee “people come an hour earlier just to hear him.”
He said there will be a service for the victims at the mosque on Monday, followed by a peace rally at the scene.
Tensions raised by the shooting were felt on Long Island.
Dr. Isma H. Chaudhry, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island, said Nassau County police have reached out to say they are stepping up security at local mosques.
She said Det. Lt. Jeiver Espinosa, commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Department’s community affairs office, contacted her on behalf of acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter “to let us know that they have set up security measures on and around our mosques.”
Worshippers sometimes visit mosques to pray up to five times a day and a strong police presence will allay “anxiety among congregants,” Chaundry said. “People feel anxious. God forbid this sentiment will accelerate copycat acts.”
She said some worshippers have chosen to not wear traditional clothing associated with their faith.
“To live in a world and be afraid to wear religious garb because they may be a target is distressing,” she said.
Iman Boukadoum, of the Manhattan-based Association of Muslim American Lawyers, described the Muslim community’s initial reaction as devastation and shock.
“To have a sacred religious leader gunned down Mafia-style in daylight walking out of a mosque has to be motivated by hate. This is a bias crime.”
She said tensions are high as a result of current “hateful rhetoric and this is a manifestation of that.”
The Islamic Leadership Council of New York has pledged $10,000 to aid the victims’ families, said executive director Cheikh Ahmed Mbareck.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, “there is no evidence of a motive, but clearly this was an assassination.”
Hooper’s organization has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.
The group’s leader in New York, Afaf Nasher, said the organization’s goal is “getting the bodies back for burial.”
She said autopsies might be completed in time for a Monday burial. Muslim tradition has mourners praying for their loved ones, who are shrouded, followed by a brief prayer service at a cemetery.
Services for both victims are scheduled for Monday at 2:30 p.m. at Municipal Parking Field 581 Grant Ave. in Brooklyn.
Nasher said the imam’s body would likely be returned to his native Bangladesh, where most of his family lives. The imam arrived in the United States less than five years ago, she said.
Nasher expressed confidence in the NYPD investigation.
Azad Hussain, acting secretary of the mosque, said the imam and Uddin often would walk to pray together all the time.
“They come together every day,” he said. “Why did they kill the priest — even in the daytime? Too much violence.”
Millat Uddin, who is not related to Thara Uddin, said the imam was a nice man who preached peace and has been at the mosque about four years.
“He’s an exceptionally docile man,” he said. “Every day in his prayer he prays for the whole community, all races, to be in peace. By our own behavior we have to let other communities know we are good people.”
He said members of the Muslim community are “scared.”
“Anything could happen to me,” he said.
Sayed Ahmed, 38, a neighbor of Akonjee and a member of the mosque, called the shooting “painful.”
“What can you say? It’s very sad for the community,” he said.
The imam had plans to visit his mother in Bangladesh and she has requested his body be flown back for burial, Ahmed said.
Ahmed said his 6-year-old daughter is frightened, asking why someone would do such a thing.
“That’s how the community is feeling — if you wear traditional clothing you’re a target. The whole community thinks it’s a hate crime,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the imam, Maulana Akonjee.
This story was reported by Maria Alvarez, Anthony M. DeStefano and Alison Fox. It was written Zachary R. Dowdy.