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Police: Serial stabber in custody

A man with ties to Loudoun County and Michigan was arrested in a series of killings in Michigan and attacks on black men in Leesburg and Ohio as he tried to board a plane from Atlanta to Israel late Wednesday, authorities said Thursday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, acting on information from the FBI, stopped Abuelazam at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at about 10 p.m. Wednesday, according to a statement from the agency.

Abuelazam. (Courtesy Photo)

A big break in the case came on Aug, 5, when the suspect, Elias Abuelazam, 33, was pulled over on a traffic violation on Walter Reed Drive in Arlington. Authorities found a knife and a hammer in his car, police said.

Abuelazam lives in Michigan, but has long ties to Leesburg and Northern Virginia. He was preparing to board Delta Flight 152 bound for Tel Aviv.when he was arrested. He was detained on a warrant from Michigan charging him with assault with intent to murder, the FBI said. Abuelazam is now in the custody of the FBI in Atlanta awaiting extradition to Michigan.

Online property and court records indicate Abuelazam was in the Washington area at least between 1998 and 2007. He owned a house in Leesburg between 2002 and 2007 and has several motor vehicle violations in that time, the records show. Relatives said he was born in Israel and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. He was in the country legally and had a green card, officials said.

Abuelazam was stopped in Arlington County on a traffic violation at 1:15 a.m. Aug, 5 --hours before one of the Leesburg stabbings. When he was pulled over, Arlington police saw that he had an outstanding misdemeanor assault warrant from Leesburg and he appeared before a magistrate, police said. He was released on his own recognizance, authorities said. Just after 6 a.m. that day, police believe he stabbed and wounded a man in Leesburg.

He was stopped in the green SUV that would later become the focus of a lookout, but was not yet at the time of the traffic stop. The outstanding warrant made no mention of the SUV and had nothing to do with the serial stabbings.

But once it became known they were looking for the Chevy Blazer, police traced the vehicle and linked the cases to Abuelazam through electronic records. Further investigation revealed his ties to both Flint and Leesburg, police said.

Independently, a tip to police led authorities to a store in Michigan, where investigators learned that he hadn't been at work for a while because he was headed to Virginia, police in Michigan said.

Other electronic records indicated that Abuelazam was booked on a flight to Tel Aviv, leading to Wednesday night's arrest.

Abuelazam's former mother-in-law, Kimberly Hirth, said her daughter and Abuelazam were married for three years and lived in Leesburg before "she divorced him" in 2007.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Hirth said she had just learned of Abuelazam's arrest, and was shocked. "I can't talk right now," she said, almost breatheless. "I have to get my bearings."

Asked about Abuelazam's behavior during his marriage to her daughter, Hirth, who lives in Crowley, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb, said repeatedly, "He was just the sweetest guy." She confirmed that Abuelazam worked at the Piedmont Behavioral Health Center, now called Northridge Behaviorial Healthcare, in Leesburg in the mid-2000s. She said Abuelazam was separated from her daughter and living in Leesburg "when she sent him the divorce papers" from Texas in 2007.

Her daughter, Jessica Nimitz, who is remarried and lives in Texas, declined to be interviewed early Thursday afternoon, saying she had just learned of her ex-husband's arrest and wanted to get more information before making a statement.

Abuelazam's sister, who still lives in Leesburg, declined comment.

Leesburg police spokesman Chris Jones said the suspect also has ties to Flint, Mich., where most of the attacks have taken place.

Police believe the suspect is responsible for fatally stabbing five men and wounding 15 in three states. Almost all the victims are black or dark-skinned.

Abuelazam worked at a liquor store in Beecher, just north of Flint, for most of July.

Authorities in Toledo suspect the same man may be responsible for stabbing a 59-year-old man in that city over the weekend.

The Toledo man was reported in critical condition early this week. All of the Leesburg victims are expected to recover.

Authorities have not conclusively linked the crimes through DNA or other forensic evidence, but they said there are striking similarities among the attacks, all of which were unprovoked. Police believe the attacks are racially motivated.

The attacker has consistently been described as a tall, muscular white man who often wears a baseball cap. He often gets close to victims by asking for directions or for help with his car; other times he says nothing at all while he approaches his targets from behind. All of the victims were alone when they were attacked.

One of the most compelling links among the crimes is the suspect's sport-utility vehicle, police said. In Virginia, Michigan and Ohio, he was seen in a dark-green Chevrolet Blazer with tan paneling at the bottom.

The Virginia assaults began Aug. 3, when a teenager out for a nighttime jog suddenly felt a sharp pain, then turned to see a man who had plunged a knife in his back. Two days later and a short distance away, a 67-year-old man who was sitting on the stoop outside his apartment was stabbed by a person who police suspect was the same assailant.

On Friday, police say, the same attacker is believed to have asked a 19-year-old man for help fixing the Blazer, then struck him in the head with a hammer. The Friday night attack was recorded by a nearby security camera, providing investigators with an image of both the suspect and the vehicle.

This item has been updated since it was first published.

-- Debbi Wilgoren, Maria Glod, Paul Duggan, Mary Pat Flaherty and Caitlin Gibson

By Washington Post Editors  |  August 12, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Homicide , Loudoun , Maria Glod , Mary Pat Flaherty , Updates  
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