Imam's death shakes storied neighborhood
NEW YORK >> The gunman, police said, was Hispanic. His two victims were Bangladeshi Muslims, one an imam, shot without provocation on their way home from their mosque.
A week after the double killing, prosecutors haven't been able to offer any theory explaining why the college janitor they charged with the crime, Oscar Morel, would have singled out the two victims.
Was it racial or religious hatred? Or maybe a bubbling up of old tensions between immigrant groups in one of New York's evolving neighborhoods?
The answer remains a mystery, but people living in the Ozone Park section of Queens, where the shooting took place, say it shouldn't be taken as evidence of a rift between the culturally diverse groups that share its streets.
"There's tension now because of what happened," said Sumona Kazi, 26, who was born in Bangladesh but came to New York as a baby. She said she was confident that if the motive was hatred, it was the hate of one person.
"Our neighborhood — even if you're Spanish, you're Arabic, you're Muslim, you're Guyanese, whatever — we're a whole united family, you know? If you're in trouble, we're going to go out for you," she said. "There's no hatred here. There's no religious gang here. We're all friendly."
Located on the border with Brooklyn, just west of Kennedy Airport, Ozone Park has had its bad and better times along with an ever-changing population.
An Italian-American neighborhood for much of the 20th century, its most famous longtime resident was the late Mafia boss John Gotti. Jimmy Burke, the real-life mobster portrayed by Robert De Niro in "Goodfellas," lived a short walk from the shooting site. So did the not-yet-famous Cyndi Lauper and Jack Kerouac.
Dramatic change came in the '70s with the arrival of a wave of Hispanic newcomers, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Then, in the 1980s, came the next cultural jolt with the arrival of immigrants from Bangladesh.
Danny Perez, 46, a school custodian who has lived in Ozone Park since he was 8, said that in the old days, the Bangladeshi and Hispanic teenagers would get into fights, West Side Story-style.
"But it was a testosterone thing, I would say. I don't really feel that it was hatred or racism," said Perez, whose family is ethnically Puerto Rican.
And anyway, he said, all that is a thing of the past.
The Bangladeshis "are great neighbors, hardworking people. Their kids are respectful. I'm glad they're living here," Perez said. "That was a freaking maniac, this guy who killed the imam."
Morel, 35, was arrested the day after the Aug. 13 attack and charged with shooting Imam Maulana Alauddin Akonjee, 55, and his assistant at the mosque, Thara Uddin, 64, with a revolver later found hidden inside a wall in the suspect's apartment.
He has pleaded not guilty.
"As far as he's concerned, he didn't commit anything," said his lawyer, Michael Schwed.
The killing awakened memories of similar deadly encounters in Ozone Park.
Two summers ago, an Ozone Park resident with ties to a political party in Bangladesh, Nazmul Islam, was beaten to death by two Hispanic men just a few blocks from the spot where Akonjee and Uddin were killed.
And in 2002, a bat-wielding group of teens killed Bangladeshi photojournalist Mizanur Rahman after a day of fistfights between Bangladeshi and Hispanic youths.
Both incidents prompted rallies and calls for a more robust police presence in the neighborhood now reeling again from the latest violence.
"That's a hate crime," concluded Nurul Hoque, a worshipper at Akonjee's Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque. "It's not a robbery; the imam had $1,000 in his pocket."
Some worshippers have been demanding stepped-up police protection — not out of fear of their own neighbors, but of anyone who might harbor ill will toward Muslims.
"9/11 changed everything ... and now, it's changing again in this election campaign," said Hoque, noting the political climate has brought back occasional prejudice on the street, despite a generally friendly mood in the neighborhood. "Some people look at you like you came from another planet. And they say, 'Go back to your country!'"
Fear of being attacked by a random stranger is keeping Hoque's wife from walking to the grocery store; her husband drives her.
Police officials say Ozone Park is as calm as any other section of the city, with no unusual reports of ethnic tension.
"It's just basic neighborhood friction — parking conditions, things of that nature," said New York Police Department Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.
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