A Brooklyn man appeared in court on Tuesday and denied killing a Muslim cleric and his assistant on a street in Queens last Saturday.
OscarMorel, 35, faces up to life in prison without parole if he is convicted of killing Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, in a brazen daylight attack on Saturday that horrified the neighborhood's Bangladeshi community.
Morel, who was shackled at the hands and feet and wore a tan button-down shirt with black pants, was arraigned at Queens Criminal Court on one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.
"It's the most horrendous and despicable act that can only be described as a cold-blooded and premeditated assassination," prosecutor Peter McCormack told the court as relatives of the victims looked on.
"The defendant ran up behind both of them and pumped numerous bullets into them striking them both in the head ... leaving them lying in the street mortally wounded," he said.
WARNING: Video might be graphic for some viewers
Authorities said on Tuesday that the suspect's motive remained unclear, and the possibility it was a hate crime was one theory being explored.
Morel appeared calm and spoke little during his brief appearance. He agreed that surveillance video showed him at the scene of the murders earlier on Saturday, but denied being the killer.
Judge Karen Gopee set his next court date for Thursday, when an attorney will be assigned to represent him.
Speaking to reporters at the court, Uddin's brother, Mashuk Uddin, said the families of both victims were devastated.
"Everybody is very upset," Uddin said, adding that he believes it was a hate crime. "These two people here being killed at one time? What's the reason? There's only one reason (and) that's the hate crime."
"Preliminarily, [police] don’t have a motive for the shooting,” a law enforcement source told the New York Post. “They don’t know what it’s about . . . They know it was a hit; the guy came up from behind and shot them. But they don’t have a motive.”
Morel allegedly admitted to being in the area at the time of the shooting, but insisted to police,“I did not shoot the guy,’’ the Post reported.
“We can’t explain why he was there,” Boyce said. But “he was [at the scene] approximately eight minutes before the homicide.”
The suspect's brother, Alvin Morel, said his brother is "a decent person" and "this is nothing like him."
“The only time we felt, everybody in New York felt, a hatred, was during 9/11," Alvin Morel said, the New York Daily News reported. "Other than that, we never felt a hatred with nobody.”
The Daily News also reported that Alvin Morel posted “I can’t believe what has happened …. GOD help my brother mother father and myself" on Facebook.
The brother said his parents are deeply affected because the family is Catholic and their mom has cancer.
Outside court, several relatives of the dead men as well as friends and locals held signs reading "We demand justice."
SUSPECT CAUGHT ON CAMERA
Robert Boyce, the New York Police Department's chief of detectives, told a news conference on Monday that surveillance video showed the suspect getting into a black sport utility vehicle after the shootings.
That vehicle was involved in a hit and run three miles away in Brooklyn shortly afterward. After officers located the SUV, the suspect rammed a detective's car several times in an attempt to escape, but was arrested, Boyce said.
Citing unnamed police sources, the New York Times, the New York Daily News and other outlets reported on Tuesday that detectives who searchedMorel's basement apartment in Brooklyn found an unlicensed revolver hidden in a wall that authorities believe he used in the execution-style killings.
Police also found clothes in his apartment that matched what the gunman had been wearing, according to the media reports.
Morel, who has a prior conviction for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, moved into the East New York, Brooklyn, apartment about seven months ago, his landlord told police.
“He had a girlfriend, but he lives alone, he was always very nice. He told me he works cleaning in a school,” 59-year-old Amado Baptista told the Daily News.
“He never talked about anything like that," he said referring to the shooting. "I don’t understand how he could have done anything like this."
Police confirmed in a statement on Tuesday that a .38-caliber Taurus revolver was recovered in connection with the investigation, but did not say where the firearm was found.
Akonjee and Uddin were shot in the head at close range after leaving Saturday prayers at the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens.
Addressing hundreds of mourners at the two men's funeral on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised the city would bolster the police presence in the neighborhood.
A father of seven, Akonjee emigrated to the United States from Bangladesh several years ago, said Badrul Khan, the founder of the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque. He described the slain imam as a humble man who lived and breathed his religious faith.
"His whole life was his job, praying here, then going home," Khan said.
Kimberly M. Aquilina contributed to this report.