Israeli held in investigation of serial stabbings
Authorities investigating 20 attacks, 5 deaths in three states since May
FLINT, Mich. — A man suspected in 20 stabbings across three states that left five people dead was arrested at the Atlanta airport as he tried to board a plane bound for Israel, authorities said.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency's officers arrested the man, an Israeli citizen, about 10 p.m.
Wednesday night at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, as he attempted to board a Delta flight for Tel Aviv. The suspect was handed over to the FBI and Atlanta police.
Passengers on the flight said as they arrived Thursday in Tel Aviv that the suspect was arrested at the boarding gate shortly before takeoff. They said his name was called over a loudspeaker, and then six police officers led him away without incident.
Customs spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the man is wanted on arrest warrants in murder cases in Michigan and Leesburg, Va. The suspect is currently being held on unrelated charges.
The Flint Journal reported the suspect's name is Elias Abuelazam, 33. A judge in Flint, Mich., where the attacks began in late May, signed a warrant Thursday charging an Elias Abuelazam with assault with intent to murder in connection with a July 27 stabbing.
Investigators Wednesday night raided a rental home on Flint's east side that is believed to have been used by Abuelazam, WNEM-TV reported. Witnesses said officers with the Michigan State Police crime lab removed numerous items.
The suspect has ties to Flint and to Leesburg, the site of three similar attacks last week, Leesburg Police Officer Chris Jones said.
"While this is a key step in the investigation, there are still many issues that need to be addressed before we identify this individual as the person responsible for this horrific crime spree," Jones said.
The man is an Israeli citizen who is in the U.S. legally, a law enforcement official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The suspect had an expired Israeli passport, and was reportedly traveling on it at the time of his arrest.
Police had focused their hunt on Flint — where 16 stabbings took place — until Leesburg police reported three attacks. Authorities in Toledo, Ohio, say a stabbing in that city Saturday appears to be linked to the violent spree.
Tip in Atlanta
Leesburg Police Chief Joseph Price said that over the past week, investigators from the Michigan Task Force and several other law enforcement agencies chased down countless leads as they poured in from the public.
Late Wednesday, he said, one tip led to a lead in Atlanta. Officer Chris Jones said police obtained "information that he was trying to leave the country."
Authorities earlier received a tip that the man had worked at the King Water Market in the Beecher district, located just north of Flint, the Flint Journal reported. Officers used surveillance video from the party store and met with management to confirm the man was a store employee. The suspect began working at the store July 5 and stopped Aug. 1, the store manager told Detroit's WDIV-TV.
"He was friendly, He was a nice guy," manager Abdullah Farrah said.
Farrah told WDIT-TV that the man was polite to customers at the party store and never treated black customers differently than white customers.
The attacks began surfacing in late spring, and picked up the pace as the stabber traversed the country. Police have said they usually follow a pattern: The suspect approaches black men late at night on lonely urban roads and asks for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then, without warning, he pulls out a knife and strikes. Then, he speeds away in his vehicle, leaving them for dead.
Most of the victims have been black, and police suspect the attacks may have been racially motivated. The youngest victim was 17; the oldest was 60. They ranged in size from 5-foot-4 inches and 120 pounds to 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds.
Police had been focusing on the city of Flint until Leesburg police reported three similar attacks last week. Toledo, Ohio, authorities also say a stabbing in that city Saturday appears to be linked to the Michigan cases.
Authorities in Leesburg, a predominantly white city, believe the three victims there were chosen because they are black.
"I believe his motivation is pure hatred," Leesburg's Price said at a Tuesday news conference in which he released a short video clip of the vehicle the suspect drove after attacking a 19-year-old man with a hammer. He said police also have footage of that attack but won't be releasing it.
This story includes information from Associated Press and NBC News.
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