(Update: Killing of a Muslim teenager in Virginia is being investigated as a road-rage incident, police say)
On Sunday, police found the girl’s remains and a 22-year-old man has been charged with murder in connection with the case.
The mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, and relatives identified the girl as 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen of Reston.
Fairfax County police identified the man charged with murder in her death as Darwin Martinez Torres of Sterling. On Monday, they did not release any explanation as to why they weren’t investigating the murder as a hate crime.
According to accounts from police and a mosque official, a group of four or five teens were walking back from breakfast at IHOP early Sunday when they were confronted by a motorist. All but one of the teens ran to the mosque, where the group reported that the girl had been left behind, according to Deputy Aleksandra Kowalski, a spokeswoman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
“Immediately thereafter, the ADAMS’ personnel notified both Loudoun County and Fairfax County authorities who immediately began an extensive search to locate the missing girl,” the mosque said in a statement.
Loudoun and Fairfax police jointly conducted an hours-long search around Dranesville Road and Woodson Drive in Herndon, which is in Fairfax. Remains thought to be the girl’s were found about 3 p.m. Sunday in a pond in the 21500 block of Ridgetop Circle in Sterling. During the search, an officer spotted a motorist driving suspiciously in the area and arrested Torres, police said.
Police said they collected several articles of evidence but declined to provide further details.
The girl’s mother said detectives told her that Nabra was struck with a metal bat.
“I can’t think of a worse instance to occur than the loss of a 17-year-old on Father’s Day, as the father of a 17-year-old myself,” Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said.
Detectives think the remains are those of the girl, but the chief medical examiner’s office will confirm the identity and manner of death, Fairfax police spokeswoman Tawny Wright said.
Shoyeb Hassan, the co-chair of ADAMS, said that during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the mosque has extra prayers at midnight and 2 a.m., and members frequently go to McDonald’s or the 24-hour IHOP to eat before they start their fast at sunrise, as Nabra and her friends were doing.
The killing rattled a Muslim community in the midst of celebrating Ramadan, a month of religious observance in which adherents fast from dawn to sunset for about a month. The period culminates in the feast-like celebration Eid al-Fitr, which is expected to fall next weekend.
“We are devastated and heartbroken as our community undergoes and processes this traumatic event,” Rizwan Jaka, chairman of ADAMS, said in a statement. “It is a time for us to come together to pray and care for our youth.”
ADAMS is Northern Virginia's largest mosque and, with 11 chapters around the District and Northern Virginia, is among the nation's most well-known congregations. According to ADAMS's website, the Sterling location is 25,000 square feet and can accommodate more than 700 people. It includes a youth weekend school, a gymnasium and multipurpose hall, the site says.
Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and commentator, said that he and his wife were at the mosque for evening prayers, which ended about 12:30 a.m. Sunday. As they were pulling out of the parking lot, he said, he saw a group of teenagers congregating and talking loudly about going out to eat. The girls, he said, were wearing the abaya, a full-length dress many Muslim women wear.
Police said Monday they aren’t investigating the death as a hate crime, but the issue was on the minds of many Muslims on Sunday.
Last month, two men on a Portland train were stabbed and killed after they intervened to protect two girls who were being harassed with anti-Muslim threats, according to authorities.
Sunday night, a van struck a crowd of pedestrians, including worshipers leaving a pair of mosques in London. Witnesses said the pedestrians were struck as they departed late-night prayers.
The ADAMS Center has a paid armed security guard at the Sterling site, according to Iftikhar. He said many mosques have increased security since six Muslim worshipers were killed at a mosque in Quebec earlier this year.
Nabra's slaying sent a chill through the community when news spread Sunday.
“People are petrified, especially people who have young Muslim daughters,” Iftikhar said.
Virginia officials condemned the killing Sunday night and expressed condolences to Nabra’s family.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said she visited ADAMS Sunday and met with leadership and law enforcement officials.
“We are heartbroken and horrified by the news of the brutal murder of a beautiful 17-year old girl,” Comstock said in a statement.
The congresswoman represents Virginia’s 10th District, where the mosque is located. “We know there is no greater pain for any parent and Chip and I extend our prayers to her family and loved ones at this difficult time and the entire ADAMS Center community,” she said. “We commend the Fairfax County Police Department and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s office for their diligent work in apprehending the perpetrator. This case should be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he and his wife, Pam, were “deeply disturbed” by the assault and killing.
"There is absolutely no place for this kind of violence in our Commonwealth," Northam said in a statement. "Every Virginian should feel safe and welcome in our communities, and no parent should ever have to experience such a heartbreaking tragedy. As the police investigation continues, I urge all Virginians to keep Nabra's friends and family in their hearts."
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) echoed Northam, urging Virginians to show compassion and kindness.
"The ADAMS Center has always welcomed me and so many in Northern Virginia like family," Herring said. "This unspeakable attack feels like an assault on our entire community. Words fail at a time like this, so we'll all have to do the best we can to surround them with the love and support they've always shown each of us."
On a crowdfunding page to support Nabra's family, donations surged Sunday night, jumping from $10,000 to nearly $18,000 in less than an hour. Shortly before 10 p.m., the fundraising page had met its $25,000 goal.
In a neighborhood full of Muslim immigrant families, the Hassanens’ modest Reston apartment was the one overflowing with friends and laughter most days, friends said Sunday.
“It’s a family where if you’re feeling down and you need to laugh, this is where you go,” said Samar Ali, 26, who grew up in the Hassanens’ apartment complex.
On Sunday night, that apartment normally filled with laughter was crammed with more than 30 women in traditional Muslim garb, sobbing and comforting one another. At the center of the crowded, dimly lit living room was Nabra’s mother, Sawsan Gazzar.
“Please pray for me, please pray for me,” Gazzar sobbed in Arabic. Her phone rang constantly. To her brother and sister in her native Egypt, she said, “Pray for me that I can handle this . . . I lost my daughter, my first reason for happiness.”
The night before, Gazzar had cooked a feast for Nabra, the oldest of her four daughters, who wanted to host a big iftar break-the-fast dinner for all her friends from ADAMS and South Lakes High School, where she just finished 10th grade.
The iftar was packed — Nabra was always popular and sociable. And when it ended, a friend's mom drove some of the teens to ADAMS for the midnight prayers that mark the last 10 days of Ramadan. Family members said she frequented the mosque during Ramadan.
And during the holy month, the mosque was filled with teens like her.
Gazzar said she thought Nabra and her friends would eat at the mosque after the prayers, and she would have forbidden her from walking to IHOP in the middle of the night. But she also wasn’t surprised that the girl went out; she and other teens had done it safely last year.
Other mothers in the apartment Sunday night echoed the same thought repeatedly — they and their children had always felt safe taking the sidewalk path to IHOP or McDonald’s for a fun meal on those final Ramadan nights.
Gazzar loaned her daughter an abaya to wear to the mosque Saturday night, since Nabra didn’t typically wear traditional Muslim clothes. She heard from a detective that when the man in the car started shouting at the teens, Nabra tripped over the long garment and fell to the ground, just before she was struck.
“I think it had to do with the way she was dressed and the fact that she’s Muslim,” Gazzar said. “Why would you kill a kid? What did my daughter do to deserve this?”
Nabra was a diligent student, so much so that although she was extremely proud to get her first job ever at a McDonald's, she quit when her manager didn't understand that studying for a school exam took priority over a work shift. Family members were quick to note her interest in fashion and makeup, and her recently acquired nose ring.
All four Hassanen girls were born in the United States — the younger ones are 11, 10 and 3. Ali described Nabra as a "daddy's girl" who was close with her father, a bus-and-limo driver. Her father spent Sunday at the mosque, Ali said, beside himself with worry all day.
Gazzar’s phone rang yet again, and this time she didn’t answer. She turned instead to the hundreds of photos stored on it, scrolling through them until she landed on one of Nabra visiting her parents’ homeland in Egypt, laughing as she embraced two of the teen’s little sisters.
“They’d all be laughing. They used to be really happy.”
She gazed into the girls’ eyes, and cried harder.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated the number of Muslim girls who were being harassed in Portland. One of the two girls identifies as Muslim.The story has also been updated to clarify earlier information.