Over the past nine months, police say, three Muslim men were shot to death — without warning — around the city.And now investigators are saying they believe there is a strong possibility the same person — or persons — is responsible.
“While we won’t go into all the specifics of why we think that, there’s one strong commonality in all victims: the race and religion,” said Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock at a news conference in front of the Islamic Center of New Mexico Thursday morning. “We are taking this very seriously. We want the public’s help in identifying this cowardly individual.”
Hartsock, with the Albuquerque Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division, said he couldn’t release more information on the investigation without compromising it.
The most recent homicide — that of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27 — galvanized a community that remembered him as a vibrant student leader, dedicated planning and land use director for the city of Española and field organizer with Melanie Stansbury campaign for congress.
The shooting came six days after another man, 41-year-old Aftab Hussein, was killed in his apartment complex parking lot less than five miles away. The first shooting, that of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, happened last November behind the Ariana Halal Market & Cafe he owned with his brother.
Since detectives believe the victims were ambushed, Hartsock said that would “generally tell us this person has been lying in wait.”
However, he said they can’t say yet if the shootings were hate crimes.
“We’ve reached out to the FBI immediately and they’ve already committed to give what resources they can,” Hartsock said. “We can’t call it a thing until we have someone identified and really know what their intention is in doing this. And we don’t know enough yet to clearly say that — but that could change.”
He said in cases like this it’s almost always the public who helps investigators identify a suspect.
“My guess is someone out there either directly knows who did this and they can provide that information to police or they’ve noticed some behavior changes in someone around them that they think could possibly do this,” Hartsock said. “Two of these murders have happened in (a) week. Whoever’s doing them, is changing up their lifestyle, their behavior, something is off more than usual.”
Ahmadi and his older brother, Sharief A Hadi, fled threats in their native Afghanistan in the 1980s and settled in Pennsylvania before coming to Albuquerque in the mid-1990s, Hadi told the Journal last December.
They opened their market on San Mateo, near Mountain NE, in 2008 and Ahmadi specialized in cooking traditional Afghan dishes.
“He didn’t have that much friends, but he was nice with the people, everybody loved him,” Hadi said. “Really good cook, really good relationship. People loved him.”
Hadi told the Journal that on the evening of Nov. 7, his younger brother had stayed at the shop after hours to finish cooking. He suspects he was smoking a cigarette and sitting in a chair behind the building when he was shot.
At 6:41 officers were dispatched to the scene in response to a shooting. When they arrived they found Ahmadi dead.
Iftikhar Amirjan, from Afghanistan, moved to New Mexico in 2015 and became friends with Hussein after he moved to the state a year later. He said the two met at the mosque and he would help his friend go shopping or navigate the city. In their little free time the two would occasionally go up to the Sandia Mountains or go out to eat.
Hussein, a busser for a local cafe, rented a second-story apartment on the 400 block of Rhode Island NE, near the Mesa Verde Community Center, with two roommates.
Amirjan said one of the roommates called him about 1 a.m. on July 27 to tell him his friend had been shot hours earlier in the complex’s parking lot.
“Aftab is like, he was like my brother,” Amirjan said. “I feel very bad for him.”
He said Hussein had siblings living in Pakistan and had recently gotten engaged. He was working to get his passport and other travel documents together so he could go to Pakistan and get married.
“He was very happy. He said ‘I’ll go to Pakistan and get married and bring my wife here’ and he said ‘I’ll make my life,’ you know,” Amirjan said. “He said ‘I’ll buy a house later on and have children.'”
On Wednesday Hussein’s brother flew in from the United Kingdom and Amirjan took him by the scene of the crime.
In the meantime, neighbors told the Journal, Hussein’s roommates had hastily moved out — leaving behind some furniture — because they were too afraid to stay.
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain
On Monday night, shortly after his brother got home and began making dinner, Muhammad Afzaal stepped outside of his apartment on Cornell and Coal SE, most likely to take a walk and make a phone call.
He was shot less than half a block away.
Muhammad Afzaal had studied law and human resource management at the University of Punjab and moved to Albuquerque in 2017 to attend graduate school at University of New Mexico. He was elected president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association in 2019 and got a master’s degree in community and regional planning.
Muhammad Afzaal had been commuting to Española for his job for the past year. He had planned on moving up there this weekend.
His death sparked an outpouring of grief from those who knew him, including U.S. Rep. Stansbury and UNM President Garnett Stokes.
After news of Muhammad Afzaal’s death began to circulate, leaders in the community reached out to law enforcement and politicians.
On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the homicides are deeply disturbing.
“New Mexico is a state that is proud of its diversity, which makes our state a richer and more vibrant place to call home …,” she said in a statement. “We will provide any resources requested by law enforcement to aid in this investigation.”
Mayor Tim Keller said the city will continue to stand by its Muslim neighbors and offer support while they mourn.
“While we do not have all the answers yet, what we do know is that violence against members of our community based on race or religion will not be tolerated in Albuquerque,” he said in a statement.
Ahmad Assed, a defense attorney and the president of Islamic Center of New Mexico, said he didn’t believe the three victims knew one another.
“The community certainly is in need of understanding the egregiousness of the conduct displayed in all three of theses shootings,” Assed said. “If it’s true that we were targeted as Muslims then they need to be very vigilant in protecting themselves and taking measures of precaution. They need to watch out for their surroundings.”
Assed spoke at the news conference along with Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael, District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Raul Bujanda, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Albuquerque Office. Police Chief Harold Medina did not attend the news conference since he is in quarantine after an exposure to COVID-19.
Some members of the Islamic community stood on the outskirts to watch.
“I know the lack of specifics and a lot of the information that is related to this investigation is something that at this stage is going to cause great concern,” Torrez said. “And frankly, I think there will be more questions than answers at this point. But I think the thing to keep in mind is that law enforcement and federal levels are working together. They’re cooperating the sharing information … what we need now is the engagement of the community.”