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Suspect in the killings of Muslim men in Albuquerque makes his first court appearance

<i>Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court</i><br/>Muhammad Syed made his first appearance in court on Wednesday via video from a detention center.
Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court
Muhammad Syed made his first appearance in court on Wednesday via video from a detention center.

By Nouran Salahieh and Paradise Afshar, CNN

The man accused of fatally shooting two Muslim men in Albuquerque appeared in court for the first time Wednesday as investigators continued to search for a motive and probe whether he’s connected to two other killings.

Muhammad Syed, 51, of Albuquerque, is the primary suspect in the killings of four Muslim men in the city between November and August, according to police.

He is being held on murder charges in two of the homicides: the July 26 killing of 41-year-old Aftab Hussein and the August 1 killing of 27-year-old Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.

Syed denied any involvement in the killings during an interview with police on Tuesday, according to an arrest affidavit.

Syed was arrested Tuesday following tips from the public, authorities said. He was stopped by police while driving near Santa Rosa, New Mexico, more than 100 miles east of Albuquerque.

Authorities found firearms during a search of his home, as well as information showing Syed may have known the victims “to some extent” and that interpersonal conflict may have led to the killings, police said Tuesday

One of the firearms recovered has been linked to bullet casings found at the scenes of two of the killings, while casings for a handgun found in his car when he was stopped were linked to one of the scenes, according to the arrest affidavit.

Syed told police “he was driving to Texas to find a new place for his family to live because the situation in Albuquerque was bad,” referring to the killing of Muslim men, the affidavit said.

On Wednesday, he appeared in court via video from a detention center.

Through a Pashto interpreter, he asked to address the court during his hearing. His attorney Megan Mitsunaga followed up asking the court not to take statements from her client.

Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judge Renée Torres also advised Syed that remaining silent would be the best thing for him to do. “Sounds good,” Syed said in response.

Syed’s case will be transferred to a district court. He is being held without bond in the meantime.

In announcing Syed’s arrest Tuesday, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said the department is working with the district attorney’s office on potential charges in the deaths of the two other men, 62-year-old Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi, killed November 7, and 25-year-old Naeem Hussain, killed August 5 after attending a funeral for the two other victims.

There is evidence “strong enough that” authorities are continuing to view Syed as the “most likely person of interest or suspect” in those killings as well, Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of the city police department’s criminal investigation division, said Tuesday.

The killings and how the investigation unfolded

The killings that Syed is being charged with — of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain — happened just days apart and police quickly connected them after determining that casings found at both crime scenes were likely fired from the same firearm, Hartsock said.

“We quickly started looking at other cases that could be similar and identify that there might be a really active public threat,” Hartsock added.

That’s when police turned their attention to a different unsolved homicide in the city: the November 7 killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, an Afghan man who was found with a gunshot wound in the parking lot behind the business he ran with his brother.

All three of the killings involved Muslim men who were “ambushed with no warning, fired on and killed,” Hartsock said.

Aftab Hussein was found July 26 with multiple gunshot wounds, lying next to a car, according to police. Detectives learned the gunman had waited behind a bush near the driveway where the victim usually parked his vehicle and fired multiple times through the bush, according to the complaint.

Muhammud Afzaal Hussain was found on August 1 with multiple gunshot wounds by officers who responded to reports of a drive-by shooting, the complaint states.

While police were still trying to piece together whether the three killings were connected, a fourth Muslim man, Naeem Hussain, was shot and killed before midnight on August 5.

The shootings caused panic within Albuquerque’s Muslim community, while also triggering hundreds of tips to law enforcement, authorities said Tuesday.

Who is Muhammad Syed?

Syed is a father of six whose family has been in the US for about six years since moving from Afghanistan, his daughter told CNN.

Hours before police announced Syed was a suspect, CNN was inside his home Tuesday morning and spoke to his daughter, who offered insight on her father and what happened when they last saw each other, which was before his arrest and before authorities executed a search warrant on their family’s home. CNN has chosen not to name the daughter out of concern for her safety.

“My father is not a person who can kill somebody. My father has always talked about peace. That’s why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting,” she told CNN.

The daughter told CNN she married a man in February 2018, and her father was not happy with the marriage at the time but had come to accept it more recently. She said her husband was friends with two victims, Aftab Hussein and Naeem Hussain.

Syed previously had “a few minor misdemeanor arrests (from the Albuquerque Police Department) from domestic violence” and some other incidents, Hartsock said. All three previous domestic violence charges Syed faced were dismissed, Hartsock said.

Authorities had previously said Syed’s sons were questioned and released as part of the investigation. On Wednesday, one of the suspect’s sons, Maiwand Syed, also known as Shaheen Syed, was arrested in connection to giving a false address when purchasing firearms last summer. The serial numbers of the guns mentioned in his father’s arrest warrant and the son’s charging documents do not match and there is no indication from police that the son’s guns are connected to the four killings.

The son has said he was not involved in the shootings.

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CNN’s Ashley Killough, Ed Lavandera, Jason Hanna and Christina Maxouris contributed to this report.

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