ATLANTA — Elias Abuelazam was about to board a plane for Israel when police arrested him in connection with a three-month stabbing spree that left five men dead, 13 others wounded and a Michigan city in terror. In the moments before the pudgy man in flip-flops and shorts was handcuffed, passengers saw him nervously talking on his cell phone, insisting he wasn't violent.
The Israeli citizen and legal U.S. resident was charged Thursday in just one case out of Flint, Mich., the battered industrial city where most of the stabbings occurred, but authorities said more charges are expected there and in Ohio and Virginia. At least 15 of the 18 victims were black but it was unclear whether the attacks were racially motivated.
Flint residents hope the arrest ends their summer of fear. Roughly every four days since late May on average, the killer approached men on lonely roads at night, asking for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then he'd pull out a knife, plunge it into his victim and speed away; in one case he used a hammer. The youngest victim was 15; the oldest 67.
Abuelazam, 33, was arrested late Wednesday at a boarding gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shortly before his plane to Tel Aviv was to take off. Officers seized him after he was paged over the intercom and told to report at a ticket counter. He has been booked into the Fulton County Jail awaiting an extradition hearing in the next few days.
Passengers on the Delta Air Lines flight were stunned but said Abuelazam appeared tense. He was talking to someone on his cell phone "about not being violent and different things like that," passenger Eugene Williams said after the plane landed in Tel Aviv.
Abuelazam's mother, Iyam al-Azzam, told Israel Radio that she talked to her son by phone before he was supposed to board "and he sounded the same as usual, quiet and calm."
She said she was getting ready to pick her son up at the airport when relatives told her he had been arrested. "I do not believe these charges are true," she said. "Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."
In Ramla, a mixed Israeli Jewish-Arab working class town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the shabby, two-story house where the suspect's mother and sister live was dark late Thursday. Neighbors, who refused to give their names, said the family is Christian but told reporters little else.
In Michigan, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said authorities don't know the motive for the stabbings, and that despite the fact that most victims were black there is no evidence race played a role.
Killed were David Motley, 31, Emmanuel A. Muhammad, 59, Darwin Marshall, 43, and Arnold R. Minor, 49, all of Flint, and Frank Kellybrew, 60, of Flint Township. All died before Aug. 4, when Michigan authorities concluded the attacks were the work of one serial killer.
A tip late Tuesday – one of more than 500 received in the stabbings – led police to a market near Flint where Abuelazam worked. Leyton said investigators talked to employees, and a store video showed that he matched the description of the man wanted by authorities.
Antwione Marshall, the victim of the July 27 stabbing in which Abuelazam has been charged, told The Associated Press that he identified Abuelazam as his assailant when the FBI visited him at 3 a.m. to show him a photograph of the suspect.
Marshall, 26, of Flint, said he was going into his apartment building when the assailant approached and asked for help fixing his car. He was stabbed twice when he opened the hood, and now has a long scar from his chest to his pelvic area.
Marshall said he wants to "retaliate" but "I'll let God handle it. Every time I look at my scar, I get angry."
Abuelazam was living in Flint, where his uncle owned two adjacent homes. Leyton said police searched them and removed evidence but he declined to describe it.
The suspect left his vehicle in Michigan and flew Wednesday to Louisville, Ky., and then to Atlanta, the last stop before the planned international flight. Leyton said Abuelazam's uncle bought him the plane ticket, which cost about $3,000, and is now cooperating with police.
A few dozen people who heard about the arrest gathered outside Abuelazam's former workplace, Kingwater Market in Mount Morris Township. One yelled that the owner should have been suspicious. Police cleared the parking lot.
Store manager Abdulla Farrah said Abuelazam worked there for about a month before leaving Aug. 1. He said he seemed like a "very polite, nice guy" who "didn't show any kind of racism," but he also said, "I hope if he's the one that did this I hope they hang him, I hope he gets the death penalty." Michigan does not have capital punishment.
Sam Peters, 30, recalled seeing Abuelazam with a bandage on his right hand and cuts on his fingers when he went into the store.
Peters, who is black, said people around the store hadn't suspected the assailant was among them.
"We always thought somebody was trying to perpetrate a hate crime against us," he said. "People were calling me from out of town, telling me to be careful."
A judge in Flint signed a warrant Thursday charging Abuelazam with assault with intent to murder in connection with the stabbing of Marshall. Authorities suspect him of stabbing a total of 14 men in Flint.
Abuelazam has ties to Leesburg, Va., the site of three similar attacks last week, Leesburg police Officer Chris Jones said. Authorities in Toledo, Ohio, say a stabbing in that city Saturday appears to be linked to the violent spree.
Authorities initially said Abuelazam was suspected in 20 stabbings, but two Michigan incidents were ruled out after further investigation. Leyton said authorities will be "methodical and thorough" as they continue to investigate and file charges.
Atlanta police said Abuelazam was being housed temporarily at the city jail after his arrest, but the jail had no record of him. It was not clear if he had an attorney or when he might be extradited to Michigan.
The trail to Abuelazam began last week, when he was arrested in Arlington, Va., during a routine traffic stop. Arlington Detective Crystal L. Nosal said police realized he was wanted on a simple assault warrant in Leesburg, about 30 miles away, but a magistrate released him on personal recognizance.
The warrant was unrelated to the stabbings, and Leyton said there was no national alert for Abuelazam or his vehicle when he was stopped.
Leyton said Arlington police found a knife and a hammer in Abuelazam's 1996 green and gold Chevrolet Blazer, which police returned to Abuelazam after briefly impounding it. The vehicle matched one described by some stabbing victims, and a hammer was used in one later attack in Virginia, on a 19-year-old man in a parking lot. Two other attacks – one in Leesburg and the one in Toledo – also occurred after the traffic stop.
Abuelazam is an Israeli citizen who is living in the U.S. with a green card, Leyton said.
According to court records in Virginia's Loudoun County, where Leesburg is located, he was arrested in December 2007 and charged with felony gun possession. Those charges were dropped the next year. He was also charged with misdemeanor assault in 2008, and had a court date scheduled next week.
Steve Guss, a lawyer who represented Abuelazam in the gun case, said that charge was a misunderstanding stemming from a previous bad-check charge out of California that Abuelazam did not realize was a felony. Guss also helped Abuelazam get his green card, and recalled him as a "laid-back type of guy" who thanked him for his work by bringing baklava and other pastries to his law firm.
Jessica Nimitz, an Arlington, Texas, woman who was married to Abuelazam from 2004 to 2007, said she was struggling to cope with the news.
"I'm shocked," she said in a phone interview. "I'm trying to figure out what's going on."
The couple married when Jessica was in her late teens, her father said. Jim Hirth said Abuelazam "seemed all right at the time but I haven't been with him day in and day out ... My whole family is shocked."
Associated Press Writers David Runk in Mount Morris Township, Mich.; Kate Brumback in Atlanta; Jeff Karoub, David Aguilar, Ed White and Mike Householder in Detroit; Nafeesa Syeed and Kathleen Miller in Washington; Matthew Barakat in Leesburg, Va.; Dalia Nammari in Ramla, Israel; Yaniv Zohar in Tel Aviv; Danny Robbins in Dallas; and Linda Stewart Ball in Crowley, Texas, contributed to this report. Williams reported from Flint, Mich.