NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The search continues for a suspect who shot and killed an imam and his assistant in Queens on Saturday afternoon as police are trying to determine if the shooting was a hate crime.
The shooting took place near Liberty Avenue and 79th Street in Ozone Park around 2 p.m.
CBS2’s Dave Carlin reported video from a home security system in Ozone Park shows the murders of 55-year-old Imam Maulama Akonjee and his 64-year-old friend and assistant Thara Uddin.
The video shows the victims in traditional Islamic clothing, with the imam using an umbrella for shade. The imam’s friend is right next to him as they walk together following midday prayers. The video then shows the suspect coming up from behind them, lifting his arm.
The suspect then shoots both of the men. Afterwards, the suspect walked away with no apparent urgency.
Police have released a sketch of the suspect, CBS2’s Magdalena Doris reported.
Investigators spoke to witnesses who helped them create the sketch of a man described as tall with a medium complexion, who wore a dark polo shirt and shorts.
Witness Asaf Hussain was inside his car parked on Liberty Avenue and ran over to the scene shortly after the gunman fled.
“I saw the police, they were already there. They surrounded the place. They took the person in the ambulance,” Hussain said.
Neighbor Asheik Hussain gave CBS2 the security camera video and said there was no robbery while looking at it.
“You have a gunman on the loose who can shoot your family at any time,” he said, adding that the killings are hate crime assassinations.
Police have yet to officially classify the case that way, but many from the surrounding community who attend the Al-Furqan Masjid mosque are calling this a hate crime.
“After prayer, he taught us how to live peacefully and how to help each other,” said Nazrul Islam of Ozone Park.
“A family man has been lost and a scholarly imam has been lost and we are devastated and we want … peace,” said Kobir Chowdhury of Ozone Park.
CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported a steady stream of mourners have been visiting the imam’s grieving family at their Ozone Park home, while just a few houses down, Uddin’s loved ones are trying to figure out who would want the two men dead.
“He’s a good guy,” Uddin’s nephew, Rezwan Uddin, said. “Why somebody shot him, I don’t know.”
At the imam’s mosque about a block away from the scene of the killings, religious leaders, politicians, and concerned citizens demanded justice, heightened security and awareness.
“For an imam to be shot in cold blood in the middle of the day in the back of the head, another person shot in the back. Again, if these are the facts, how could you not be concerned about your brother, your mother, your father, and your children and this is when we all have to come together,” New York City Controller Scott Stringer said.
As the investigation continues, loved ones mourned the two fathers killed.
“He’s a very quiet, docile, religious person,” one man said of Akonjee. “A man like him cannot be shot dead like this.”
“Seven children are left as orphans for the imam and three children for his associate,” Afaf Nasher, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said. “Let’s not forget the compassion needed at this moment.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told WCBS 880’s Stephanie Colombini she understands why the NYPD has said so far there’s no evidence suggesting the murders were religiously motivated.
“But if it is demonstrated in any way that this is the result of hatred toward members of our community because of their faith, it is not anything in any which way we condone. We fully reject that,” Mark-Viverito said.
New York City Councilmember Eric Ulrich, R-Ozone Park, said this is a close knit and devout Muslim community — a Bangladeshi and Pakistani enclave that is heartbroken by the senseless crime.
“For a crime like this to happen in their own community and for the victim to be somebody that they love and respect and admire so much, it has deeply impacted this community,” Ulrich said. “They are outraged.”
The Anti-Defamation League expressed solidarity with New York City’s Muslim community.
The organization says that while the motive for the crime is still unknown, nothing can justify the killing of two men walking from their place of worship.
“Unfortunately, such incidents have the potential to make communities feel unsafe and vulnerable. However, the Muslim community should know that greater New York stands united with them during this extremely difficult time,” New York Regional Director Evan R. Bernstein said.
The ADL is urging the NYPD to investigate the shootings as a possible bias crime.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted, “The senseless murders of Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin are heartbreaking. This kind of heinous act has no place in America.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city “will bring this killer to justice.”
“This weekend our city was stung by violence that devastated a congregation and unsettled a community. When religious leaders are targeted, we all bear the pain those in Ozone Park feel most personally today. While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we do know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry. It remains critical that we work to bridge the divides that threaten to undermine the greatness of our city and country,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Muslim leaders said they are disappointed the mayor did not visit the victims’ families.
“It’s been more than a day and the mayor’s still not here,” mosque member Kairul Islam said.
De Blasio’s public schedule had him traveling to Connecticut Saturday and returning Monday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted New York stands “in solidarity with the Muslim community as they grieve this loss.”
Congressman Dan Donovan also released a statement Sunday morning urging for solidarity following the shooting.
“All of us – Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists – are Americans. We cannot let hatred and fear divide us. Let’s stand together, regardless of religion or color or politics, in condemning today’s tragic violence and working toward a more peaceful society based on mutual respect,” Donovan said in a statement.
Police said there is nothing to indicate that the two men were targeted because of their faith.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator.
Akonjee moved to Queens from his native Bangladesh two years and leaves behind seven children. Uddin leaves behind three kids.
The funerals for both men will take place Monday in Brooklyn at the Municipal Parking Field on 581 Grant Ave.
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