Killing of Muslim teenager not being investigated as a hate crime, police say
The death of a Virginia teenager who police say was attacked near a mosque in the Sterling area is not being investigated as a hate crime, authorities said Monday.
On Sunday, police found the girl’s remains after the mosque had reporting her missing and a 22-year-old man has been charged with murder in connection with the case.
Relatives identified the girl as Nabra Hassanen of Reston. Prosecutors said Nabra was 16 years old, but police had initially said she was 17.
Fairfax County police identified the man charged with murder in her death as Darwin Martinez Torres of Sterling.
On Sunday night as family and friends gathered, Sawsan Gazzar the teenager’s ‘s mother, said, “pray for me that I can handle this. . . . I lost my daughter, my first reason for happiness.”
Torres was held without bond following a brief arraignment Monday in Fairfax County juvenile court. Appearing on a video monitor from the county jail, Torres spoke through a Spanish translator to answer a judge’s questions. He was appointed a public defender and his next court appearance was set for July 19.
Fairfax County prosecutors offered no new information about the case during the hearing and declined to comment afterward.
Police had initially said a possible hate-crime motivation was among the things authorities were investigating. But that changed Monday when they posted a message on Twitter saying they were not investigating the case as a hate crime. Authorities did not immediately elaborate on that statement.
The chief medical examiner’s office will confirm the identity of the remains and manner of death, Fairfax police spokeswoman Tawny Wright said Sunday.
According to accounts from police and a mosque official, a group of four or five teens was walking early Sunday from breakfast at an IHOP - where they had headed after leaving a mosque - when they were confronted by a motorist, now identified by police as Torres. All but one of the teens ran to the mosque in Sterling called the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), where the group reported that Hassanen had been left behind, according to Deputy Aleksandra Kowalski, a spokeswoman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
An aunt of Martinez Torres, who declined to be identified and was at court, said the family is shocked and mystified about charges against their relative.
The aunt said Martinez Torres was at a Sterling park with her mother, hours before the incident. She said Martinez Torres left the park at around 11:30 p.m. Sunday to head home.
Family members of Torres said he worked in construction. He has a 4-year-old son and a girlfriend and is originally from El Salvador. He attended school briefly in the U.S.
The aunt said she believed Torres did not know Nabra adding that family members also did not know her.
“I can’t believe it,” the aunt said. “He is nice with my mom. He is nice with my family. He’s a nice dad.”
Officials at the mosque notified police about the missing girl and Loudoun County and Fairfax County authorities began an extensive search, the mosque said in a statement.
The two agencies conducted an hours-long search around Dranesville Road and Woodson Drive in Herndon, which is in Fairfax. Remains thought to be the girl’s were found about 3 p.m. Sunday in a pond in the 21500 block of Ridgetop Circle in Sterling. During the search, an officer spotted a motorist driving suspiciously in the area and arrested Torres, police said.
Police said they collected several articles of evidence but declined to provide further details.
The girl’s mother said detectives told her that Nabra was struck with a metal bat.
In a neighborhood full of Muslim immigrant families, the victim’s modest Reston apartment was the one overflowing with friends and laughter most days, friends said Sunday.
“It’s a family where if you’re feeling down and you need to laugh, this is where you go,” said Samar Ali, 26, who grew up in the Hassanens’ apartment complex.
On Sunday night, that apartment normally filled with laughter was crammed with more than 30 women in traditional Muslim garb, sobbing and comforting one another. At the center of the crowded, dimly lit living room was the victim’s mother.
They described the young victim as a quiet girl who did not talk back.
“If you’re talking about sweet, she’s the definition of sweet,” said Samar Ali, 26, who grew up in the same apartment complex as Nabra.
Neighbors described the teenager as unusually respectful, calling older neighbors “sir” and “ma’am” and helping watch small children, at home and at her mosque.
“Nabra’s personality, she gets scared very easily,” said her mother, Sawsan Gazzar. “Nabra doesn’t even fight with her sisters. She’s very scared.”
In conversations with detectives, the victim’s mother said she was told the driver shouted at the teens, then threw glass beer bottles at them.
She also believed that her daughter’s death was a hate crime.
“I’m sure the guy hit my daughter because she’s Muslim and she was wearing the hijab,” she said. “The thing in my head is, why did he do that to us? We’re not bad people. He doesn’t know us. Why did he ever do that? I don’t feel safe at all anymore, as a Muslim living here now. I’m so worried about sending my kids out and their coming back as bodies.”
“I want justice. I want to know why he did this to her . . . Why would you kill a kid? What did my daughter do to deserve this?”
The killing rattled a Muslim community in the midst of celebrating Ramadan, a month of religious observance in which adherents fast from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. The period culminates in the feast-like celebration Eid al-Fitr, which is expected to fall next weekend.
“We are devastated and heartbroken as our community undergoes and processes this traumatic event,” Rizwan Jaka, chairman of ADAMS, said in a statement. “It is a time for us to come together to pray and care for our youth.”
ADAMS is Northern Virginia’s largest mosque and, with 11 chapters around the District and Northern Virginia, is among the nation’s most well-known congregations. According to ADAMS’s website, the Sterling location is 25,000 square feet and can accommodate more than 700 people. It includes a youth weekend school, a gymnasium and multipurpose hall, the site says.
Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and commentator, said that he and his wife were at the mosque for evening prayers, which ended about 12:30 a.m. Sunday. As they were pulling out of the parking lot, he said, he saw a group of teenagers congregating and talking loudly about going out to eat. The girls, he said, were wearing the abaya, a full-length dress many Muslim women wear.
Police have not said that the slaying was a hate crime, but the issue was on the minds of many Muslims.
Last month, two men on a Portland train were stabbed and killed after they intervened to protect two girls who were being harassed, according to authorities.
Sunday night, a van struck a crowd of pedestrians, including worshipers leaving a pair of mosques in London. Witnesses said the pedestrians were struck as they departed late-night prayers.
The ADAMS Center has a paid armed security guard at the Sterling site, according to Iftikhar. He said many mosques have increased security since six Muslim worshipers were killed at a mosque in Quebec earlier this year.
Nabra’s slaying sent a chill through the community when news spread Sunday.
“People are petrified, especially people who have young Muslim daughters,” Iftikhar said.
Virginia officials condemned the killing Sunday night and expressed condolences to Nabra’s family.
Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said of the murder, “I can’t think of a worse instance to occur than the loss of a 17-year-old on Father’s Day, as the father of a 17-year-old myself.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said she visited ADAMS Sunday and met with leadership and law enforcement officials.
“We are heartbroken and horrified by the news of the brutal murder of a beautiful 17-year old girl,” Comstock said in a statement.
The night before, Gazzar - the victim’s mother - had cooked a feast for Nabra, the oldest of her four daughters, who wanted to host a big iftar break-the-fast dinner for all her friends from ADAMS and South Lakes High School, where she just finished 10th grade.
The iftar was packed - Nabra was always popular and sociable. And when it ended, a friend’s mom drove some of the teens to ADAMS for the midnight prayers that mark the last 10 days of Ramadan. Nabra wasn’t ordinarily religiously observant - she was more excited about fashion and makeup, including recently her nose ring - but she frequented the mosque during Ramadan, when it became a social hub for teens.
Gazzar said she thought Nabra and her friends would eat at the mosque after the prayers, and she would have forbidden her from walking to IHOP in the middle of the night. But she also wasn’t surprised that the girl went out; she and other teens had done it safely last year.
Other mothers in the apartment Sunday night echoed the same thought repeatedly - they and their children had always felt safe taking the sidewalk path to IHOP or McDonald’s for a fun meal on those final Ramadan nights.
Gazzar loaned her daughter an abaya to wear to the mosque Saturday night, since Nabra didn’t typically wear traditional Muslim clothes. She heard from a detective that when the man in the car started shouting at the teens, Nabra tripped over the long garment and fell to the ground, just before she was struck.
“I think it had to do with the way she was dressed and the fact that she’s Muslim,” Gazzar said. “Why would you kill a kid? What did my daughter do to deserve this?”
Nabra was a diligent student, so much so that although she was extremely proud to get her first job ever at a McDonald’s, she quit when her manager didn’t understand that studying for a school exam took priority over a work shift.
All four Hassanen girls were born in the United States - the younger ones are 11, 10 and 3. Ali described Nabra as a “daddy’s girl” who was close with her father, a bus-and-limo driver. Her father spent Sunday at the mosque, Ali said, beside himself with worry all day.
Gazzar’s phone rang yet again, and this time she didn’t answer. She turned instead to the hundreds of photos stored on it, scrolling through them until she landed on one of Nabra visiting her parents’ homeland in Egypt, laughing as she embraced two of the teen’s little sisters.
“They’d all be laughing. They used to be really happy.”
She gazed into the girls’ eyes, and cried harder.