In Israel, conflicting recollections of suspected 'Flint serial killer'

Officials say, Elias Abuelazam, a suspect in a string of 18 stabbings that terrorized people across three states and left five dead has been arrested in front of startled passengers at an airport gate as he tried to board a plane for Israel. (Aug. 12)
By Joel Greenberg
Friday, August 13, 2010; 11:55 AM

RAMLA, ISRAEL -- The heavy metal door at the home of the Abuelazam family was shut tight Friday, and no one answered the doorbell.

Outside, in the old quarter of this gritty, mixed Jewish-Arab town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a cousin and neighbors offered conflicting recollections of the teenager who left for the United States in the early 1990s and suddenly resurfaced this week on their television screens as a suspect in a string of stabbings in Michigan, Ohio and Leesburg.

Stories swirled about his past, including an account of a stabbing during his last visit home this past spring.

An Israeli Arab, Elias Abuelazam, 33, was raised in a respectable Greek Orthodox Christian family, acquaintances said. His late father owned a grocery store, and his mother had a small sewing shop at home. He was an only son, with five sisters, all married. "He was really a good kid," said Bahjat Dasouki, who lives next door to the family. "He didn't lack anything."

Yakoub Amsis, the owner of a nearby bakery, recalled the young Abuelazam as "spoiled and gentle, the only boy among all those sisters."

When he was in 11th grade, his mother brought him to the United States and left him with relatives there.

"She wanted him far away from the crime and violence over here," said a man working at the Greek Orthodox school across from the family home. The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said sending youngsters to study abroad was common among local families seeking better opportunities for their children.

Sami Abu Muammar, a neighbor who described himself as a former drug addict, said that as a teenager, Abuelazam had begun slipping into the local drug scene and that his mother wanted him out of Ramla before things got worse.

"She didn't want him to get deeper into drugs or crime, so she sent him over there," he said. "It was drug city here, and she wanted to get him out of it."

But a cousin, also named Elias Abuelazam, disputed that account. He said his cousin was attracted to the United States, enjoyed living with relatives there and chose to remain.

Over the years, Abuelazam would visit home occasionally. He would tell about his life in the United States, and on his last visit a few months ago, mentioned that he wanted to marry a local woman and take her back with him, neighbors said.

"He said he was happy there and wanted to return," his cousin said. "He felt choked here, living with his mother. There he lived on his own, in a house owned by his uncle. It's a bigger country, and he was free to do what he liked."

But Abu Muammar, the neighbor, said that during his last visit, Abuelazam stabbed a man. He said the alleged attack happened at the Shahin sweets shop, where Ziyad Shahin was knifed in the neck for no apparent reason. "People said he had gone around the bend," Abu Muammar said. "The matter was settled between them, and they didn't go to the police."

At the sweets shop, people said they knew nothing of such an incident, and Ziyad Shahin was not on the premises. Amsis, the baker, said he heard that Shahin had been stabbed but didn't know whether Abuelazam was the assailant. Abuelazam's cousin said he had "no idea" about the case.

The alleged attack seemed out of character for Abuelazam, Abu Muammar said. "When he was visiting here he called me over -- he's a big strapping guy -- and I hugged and kissed him. He seemed fine."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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