NEW YORK — Ten minutes after Oscar Morel allegedly killed an imam and his assistant, he cursed and then struck an Iraqi man walking his bicycle through a crosswalk, the man said yesterday.
Salim al-Shimiri, a fashion designer who fled the Iraq War, saw a black SUV moving erratically, glanced at the driver and tried to get out of the way.
Instead, the driver sped up and appeared to drive right at him, al-Shimiri said in an interview Wednesday.
“I saw his face. It was anger,” said al-Shimiri, 52. The force of the impact knocked him to the ground and left him badly bruised. A bystander reported a hit-and-run, police retrieved surveillance video from the accident and the scene of the double murder and saw the suspect fleeing into the car after the slaying and then striking al-Shimiri.
Morel, 35, faces the possibility of life in prison without parole in the execution-style killings of imam Maulama Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Uddin, both Bangladeshi immigrants and fathers of three, as they walked down a sidewalk near their mosque after Saturday afternoon prayers. He first was charged in the hit-and-run.
Investigators say they have not found a motive in either crime, but have not ruled out charging Morel with a hate crime, as well.
A porter at the New School in Manhattan, Morel was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder, an added count that brings the heavier penalty, said Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney. He is due in court again Thursday.
“While the motivation for this violent act is still unclear and continues to be investigated, one of the possible motives being explored is whether this was a hate crime,” Brown said in a statement. “Crimes motivated by bias or hate are deplorable and can never be tolerated.”
The killings have sparked deep unease across the area, where many residents are convinced that the two Muslim men were killed in a hate crime.
Morel lived in the basement apartment of a house in Brooklyn, in a building that, like many around it, has bars covering the windows. His apartment entrance was around back of the blue house, down a narrow set of concrete steps, and facing an overgrown yard where some neighbors said he sold cars and car parts.
“He tried to sell me a Lexus,” said Ronald Clark, who lives nearby and said he periodically talked to Morel over the past few years.
“He was cool to me,” Clark said Wednesday. He didn’t buy the Lexus from Morel — “other people” warned him it might be stolen — but he did drive his own car into Morel’s yard once to help him jump-start it. Another time, Morel “tried to sell me a Honda Accord for parts,” Clark said.
“He was a nice person. . . . The only thing is — what would make him do that?” asked Louis Garcia, who lives around the corner and said he had casual exchanges with Morel every so often.
Another neighbor, Gary Dematas, said Morel at one time had a small stand-alone pool in the back yard where he sometimes swam with children. But none of the neighbors seemed to know if Morel had a partner or children of his own.
Al-Shirmiri, still recovering from the accident, was badly shaken anew when he learned the man charged with hitting him also was charging with killed two men minutes before.
He fled Iraq for the United States in 2008 and said he has sometimes experienced discrimination as an Arab man. A landlord refused to rent to him, he’s been kicked out of stores and he often avoids the question “where are you from?” Sometimes, he uses the name David Hunter.
But he views the country as his adopted home.
“I think of America as the country of security, but I am afraid now,” he said in his native Arabic. “The best thing about America is the security and the fact that all people and all faiths can live together, but now I am scared.”