Investigators looking into the killing of a 17-year-old Virginia girl celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan said Monday that the attack does not appear to have been a hate crime but rather a brutal case of road rage.
Nabra Hassanen was reported missing early Sunday morning by a group of friends who had been with her at an overnight prayer event marking the holiday. Her body was discovered that evening in a pond in Loudoun County a few miles from the mosque where the event was held.
The incident stirred fear that Nabra had been targeted for her race or religion. She was wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf when she disappeared.
But investigators from Fairfax County, who were in charge of the search, told a different story.
Around 3:40 a.m. Sunday, they said, Nabra and about 15 other teenagers were leaving a fast food restaurant in the town of Sterling and returning to the mosque, known as the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.
Some of the teenagers were walking on the sidewalk and others riding bikes along Dranesville Road when a driver appeared behind them, said Julie Parker, the Fairfax County communications director, at a news conference Monday.
The driver started arguing with one of the bicycle riders, then drove his car onto the curb near the group, investigators said.
The teenagers scattered, but the driver caught up with several of them in a nearby parking lot and got out of his car with a baseball bat in his hand. He used it to strike Nabra, police said.
Then he put her in his car and drove away. He later left her body in the pond.
During the search Sunday for Nabra, a police officer saw a car driving “suspiciously” and pulled it over. The driver was Darwin Martinez Torres, a 22-year-old Sterling resident.
Prosecutors charged him with murder later that day, after police found Nabra’s body. Autopsy results showed that Nabra had suffered from blunt force trauma to the upper body, according to Fairfax County police.
Martinez was arraigned in court Monday and denied bail.
“This tragic case appears to be the result of a road rage incident involving the suspect, who was driving and who is now charged with murder, and a group of teenagers,” Fairfax County police said in a statement Monday afternoon. “Our investigation at this point in no way indicates the victim was targeted because of her race or religion.”
Authorities said the investigation was still preliminary and that the findings could change if new evidence is discovered.
Members of the Muslim community in Virginia were skeptical that religion played no role in the killing.
“Road rage. Indeed,” tweeted Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and senior fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. “If you think for a minute that her appearance had nothing to do with this crime, you’re lying to yourself.”
With anti-Muslim incidents on the rise, the incident spurred calls for increased vigilance and security during the remainder of Ramadan, which ends June 24.
After Nabra’s body was discovered, “I told my congregation about the incident and urged them not to travel alone,” said Imam Bilal Ankaya of the Exher Mosque in Fairfax, Va. “Our community is close and we look out for one another, but I told them the tragic event didn't happen far from here and they should be careful letting children travel at night.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights organization, also urged Muslims to increase security in light of recent events including Nabra’s killing, the terrorist attack Monday on Muslims outside a mosque in London and the killings in May of two Oregon men who defended a Muslim girl who was being harassed.
“Because of the recent spike in hate incidents … we urge local communities to implement increased security measures during end-of-Ramadan activities,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR. “We urge community leaders to immediately request extra police patrols in the area of Ramadan-related activities.”
At the Fairfax County news conference Monday, Deputy Police Chief Tom Ryan promised justice for Nabra’s family.
“The suspect will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
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