ATLANTA — A suspect in a string of 20 stabbings that terrorized people across three states and left five dead was arrested in front of startled passengers at an airport gate as he tried to board a plane for Israel, officials said Thursday.
A judge in Flint, Mich., where the attacks began in late May, signed a warrant Thursday charging Elias Abuelazam, 33, with assault with intent to murder in connection with a July 27 stabbing.
Antwoine Marshall, 26, of Flint, the victim of that attack, told The Associated Press that the FBI visited him at 3 a.m. to show him a picture of the man arrested in Atlanta, and he identified him as the assailant.
Marshall 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. Three of his organs were cut, and he 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.”
Atlanta police said they went to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at the request of Michigan State Police and paged Abuelazam over the intercom as he waited to board a Delta Air Lines flight to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Passengers on the flight said as they arrived in Tel Aviv that the suspect was tense and talking on his cell phone when he was arrested at the boarding gate shortly before takeoff. They said six police officers led him away without incident.
“He was talking on the phone. I didn’t hear what he said,” Romi Shaked, who was on the plane, told The Associated Press. “I just saw him talking to different people and moving around and sitting in different seats.”
The suspect has ties to Flint and to Leesburg, Va., the site of three similar attacks last week, Leesburg Police Officer Chris Jones said. The victims have been mostly black, and police suspect the attacks may have been racially motivated.
“While this is a key step in the investigation, there are still many issues that need to be addressed before we identify this individual as the person responsible for this horrific crime spree,” Jones said.
Police in Arlington, Va., said Abuelazam was arrested there during a routine traffic stop last week.
Arlington Detective Crystal L. Nosal Abuelazam 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, meaning he was responsible for returning to court.
Abuelazam is an Israeli citizen who is in the U.S. legally, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.
Police had focused their hunt on Flint — where 16 stabbings took place — until Leesburg police reported three attacks. Authorities in Toledo, Ohio, say a stabbing in that city Saturday appears to be linked to the violent spree.
Atlanta authorities got involved when the suspect was arrested at the airport, said Atlanta Police spokesman Carlos Campos.
“It’s not our investigation,” he said. “We simply were involved in the apprehension.”
The Israeli consulate in Atlanta was in touch with the U.S. government to get information about the case, spokeswoman Amanda Flaks said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, a task force led by the Michigan State Police and including the FBI had received 469 tips.
The attacks began surfacing in late spring, and picked up the pace as the stabber traversed the country.
Police have said they usually follow a pattern: The suspect approaches black men late at night on lonely urban roads and asks for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then, without warning, he pulls out a knife and strikes. Then, he speeds away in his vehicle, leaving them for dead.
The brazen nature and the frequency of the attacks — the assailant has struck an average of about once every four days since the first stabbing in May — has terrified some of those in cities he’s already targeted.
The youngest victim was 17; the oldest was 60. They ranged in size from 5-foot-4 inches and 120 pounds to 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds.