CORRECTION: Investigations find possible link in Muslim men's slayings

·5 min read

Aug. 5—Correction appended

This week's fatal shooting of Española planning director Muhammad Afzaal Hussain could be connected to the slayings of two other Muslim men in Albuquerque, authorities said, spurring outrage and fear that deadly racial attacks could continue in the city.

Albuquerque police and the FBI held a news conference Thursday morning in front of the Islamic Center of New Mexico to announce investigators have found a "strong possibility" Hussain's killer might have been the perpetrator in two other unsolved homicides — the fatal shootings of 62-year-old Mohammad Ahmadi in November and Aftab Hussein, 41, in July. Both men were from Afghanistan, according to police, while Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, was Pakistani.

Albuquerque police Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said law enforcement officials want the public's help identifying the "cowardly" person who has been ambushing and shooting Muslim men throughout the city.

"While we won't go into why we think [there's a connection], there's one strong commonality in all of our victims — their race and religion," Hartsock said at the news conference.

"Whoever is doing [the killings] is changing up their lifestyle, their behavior, something is more off than usual," he added, speaking of Hussain's killing just days after the previous attack.

Frank Fisher, a spokesman for the FBI office in Albuquerque, which is aiding Albuquerque police in the ongoing investigation, said representatives of the federal agency, the police department, the District Attorney's Office and Mayor Tim Keller spoke in private with Islamic Center members prior to the news conference.

"This is a difficult moment for this community," Fisher said.

Tahir Gauba, a spokesman for the Islamic Center, said Albuquerque's Muslim community is feeling panicked by the news.

"We have never felt this much fear in [our] community," Gauba said. "I've never seen this much fear within my own family."

Law enforcement officials said they believe the killer first struck around 6:40 p.m. Nov. 7 at 1401 San Mateo Blvd. NE, where police responding to a report of a shooting found Ahmadi's body in a parking lot, according to a police report summary. The address is that of the Ariana Halal Super Market & Cafe.

Aftab Hussein, 41, was found dead of apparent gunshot wounds in the 400 block of Rhode Island NE, near the International District, around 10:30 p.m. July 26 — less than a week before Muhammad Afzaal Hussain's death on Monday, a report says.

Hussain was killed around 9:20 p.m. at Cornell Street and Lead Avenue near the University of New Mexico, where he had obtained master's and bachelor's degrees in community and regional planning.

UNM spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair said in a statement issued earlier this week Hussain was a prominent student leader and a vibrant human being. He served as president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, she wrote, and was very active in the international student community.

"Muhammad was an inspiring leader and a really special Lobo who touched so many lives," UNM President Garnett Stokes said in the statement. "It was my privilege to know and work with him."

Former Española Mayor Javier Sanchez, who had hired Hussain as the city's land use and planning director last year, said Thursday's revelation only added to the difficulty in coming to terms with Hussain's death.

"The sadness just keeps growing and the hearts keep swelling," Sanchez said. It was "doubly painful" to hear Hussain might have been targeted because of his religion and ethnicity, he added.

John Ramon Vigil, the city's current mayor, said earlier this week Hussain had been commuting to work from Albuquerque but had planned to move Friday into a historic home owned by a city he had grown to embrace.

"He was so excited," Vigil said. "He had already been cleaning the place up and making it to his standards."

Vigil called Hussain's death a tragedy and said the city had lost a "champion."

"He always had a smile. He was a pillar of our community," Vigil said. "He became one of us."

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement Thursday calling the deaths of the three Muslim men "deeply disturbing to me and to all New Mexicans."

She added, "New Mexico is a state that is proud of its diversity, which makes our state a richer and more vibrant place to call home. My thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends and loved ones of these men, as well as with the Muslim and Middle Eastern communities in Albuquerque and the rest of the state. We will provide any resources requested by law enforcement to aid in this investigation."

Members of Hussain's family could not be reached for comment.

Hussain's older brother, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, told KRQE-TV he has had trouble explaining to his children what happened to their uncle. His family wants results — they want to know who killed his brother and why, he added.

"My brother will not come back," he told the news station, but he doesn't want to see anyone else's loved one become a "victim of those people."

"Muhammad was my youngest brother, and he was very active and lively person and much involved in the community," Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain said in the interview.

He and his young sons were staying with Muhammad Afzaal Hussain at the time of his death. The brother said Hussain had gone outside around 9 p.m. and didn't return.

The Islamic Center of New Mexico, 1100 Yale Blvd. NE, will hold a funeral prayer at 1:45 p.m. Friday for Aftab Hussein and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, Gauba said.

As the investigation continues into the Muslim men's deaths, he cautioned members of Albuquerque's Muslim community against going outside after dark if it's unnecessary and to avoid confrontation.

"Everybody just be careful. You know, it doesn't matter if you're Muslim or non-Muslim," Gauba said. "Albuquerque is going through some tough times. Let's make the changes together, and hopefully we can have our beautiful city back."

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Islamic Center spokesman Tahir Gauba.