The man accused of going on a three-state stabbing spree in the US was also a suspect in a stabbing near his hometown in Israel. However, what drove Elias Abuelazam remains a mystery: Relatives describe a shy man from a respected family who had recently become despondent.
Profilers say the case is baffling because, despite five deaths, murder did not appear to be the goal.
Abuelazam is suspected of attacking people in Michigan, Ohio and Virginia, leaving 13 people wounded in addition to the dead. He was arrested on Wednesday in Atlanta, Georgia, as he prepared to board a flight to his native Israel, where relatives said he lived until his family sent him to the US when he was 18.
The 33-year-old man appeared briefly on Friday in an Atlanta courtroom and agreed to return to Michigan to face an attempted murder charge in one of the attacks — a July 27 stabbing in Flint, Michigan, that put the victim in the hospital for a week.
Authorities said more charges were expected in the three states.
A family member in this poverty-stricken community said Abuelazam had become unhappy about his personal life in recent months. Others in the Arab neighborhood where he grew up expressed shock that the man they knew could be a suspect in the gruesome attacks.
“I wouldn’t believe it even if I saw it with my own eyes,” said Abuelazam’s 49-year-old cousin, also named Elias Abuelazam.
He said that when his cousin last visited earlier this year, he was tense, unhappy and unsure what to do with his life. The younger Abuelazam said he wanted to get married and settle down in Israel.
“He seemed confused,” the cousin said, but he said suggestions that Abuelazam was a killer were “malicious rumors.”
He said news of the arrest had devastated Abuelazam’s mother, who was excitedly waiting for a text message to pick her son up at the airport when she heard the news.
“She couldn’t stand up. She was hysterical,” he said.
During Friday’s court hearing, Abuelazam was expressionless as he responded to questions from the judge. He initially said he wanted to stay in Georgia, but the judge told him he would have to return to Michigan if he wanted to fight the allegations.
Back in Israel, the family’s modest two-story stone home, in a Christian section of Ramle’s historic old city, remained shuttered and dark on Friday, and Abuelazams’ mother, Hiam, was holed up inside.
In a brief radio interview, she described her son as a “religious, God-fearing man” and said she refused to believe he was a killer.
However, Israeli police said Abuelazam was a suspect in a stabbing attack early this year, although charges were never pressed.
A senior police commander said Abuelazam was believed to have stabbed a close acquaintance in the face with a screwdriver during an argument in a parked car about six months ago. The commander said police dropped the case because the victim refused to cooperate with investigators.
All but four of the 18 attacks occurred the Flint area. The others were in Leesburg, Virginia, and Toledo, Ohio. In one case, the attacker used a hammer.
The youngest victim was 15; the oldest 67. At least 15 victims were black, although there’s no evidence that race played a role, authorities said. A motive was not known.
Robert Keppel, a retired Washington state homicide detective who profiles serial killers, said it is rare for someone to attack males exclusively.