Drifter heads to trial in Michigan stabbing spree

Tom Booker had made the walk to a nearby store countless times. He wanted cigarettes, candy, maybe a can of beer. On his way home around midnight, a motorist asked him to help open a stubborn hood on a Chevy Blazer.

"He wrapped his arm around my neck and stuck the knife in my liver and kidney and twisted it," Booker said, recalling the attack in a dark empty lot just north of Flint.

Booker eventually broke free with a hard punch and somehow made it home -- "seems like I floated." While waiting for an ambulance, he rested his head on his wife's chest, his clothes drenched in blood. "Honey," he told her, "I'm dying."

Nearly two years later, an Israeli-born drifter goes to trial Tuesday for the first time since Flint's shocking summer of 2010, when as many as 14 people were stabbed in the area, five fatally.

Elias Abuelazam is charged with killing a 49-year-old man whose body was found in the middle of a busy street, one of three murders and six attempted murders he's accused of in Genesee County.

Survivors said the killer's method was quick and vicious: A muscular motorist more than 6 feet tall appealed for help late at night, plunged a knife into unsuspecting strangers and said nothing before speeding away.

In addition to the nine Flint cases, Abuelazam is also linked to non-fatal stabbings in Leesburg, Va., and Toledo, Ohio.

Abuelazam, who has permanent resident status in the U.S., was captured in the Atlanta airport while trying to flee to Israel, just days after the last attack in August 2010. His lawyers will have a difficult time fighting the evidence at trial. Minor's DNA was in dried blood discovered in Abuelazam's SUV and inside his luggage. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

"DNA's tough -- it just is," acknowledged defense attorney Brian Morley. "He's ready. He understands the evidence. He understands what's going on."

Morley and co-counsel Ed Zeineh are prepared to offer an insanity defense, claiming Abuelazam was mentally ill when Arnold Minor was killed. They've lined up an expert to testify about his mental state, but a decision about pursuing that strategy won't be publicly disclosed until trial. Prosecutors have their own experts who have examined Abuelazam and are prepared to rebut it.

"The question is: Is there legal culpability if there was an insane person at the time of the crime?" Morley said. "That's the jury's domain."

Besides the facts of Minor's slaying, jurors will probably hear from victims who survived. Those stabbings can be offered as evidence because the attacks were similar.

"The evidence can be very powerful. It shows a method of operation," said Mark Clement, a veteran defense attorney not involved in the case. "They'll point at the guy and say, `It was him,' and that will be a big moment. The fear will come out, and everyone in that courtroom will feel it."

Abuelazam, 35, had lived in Flint only for a brief time in a house owned by an uncle who lived next door. He had spent time in Virginia before landing in Michigan and getting a $10-an-hour job at a liquor store in a tough neighborhood. Kingwater Market manager Abdulla Farrah needed someone for the afternoon shift, and after sizing up the beefy man, "figured no one would mess with him."

When police were zeroing on Abuelazam and asked for store surveillance video, "I told them they had the wrong guy," Farrah said. "It was a shock for me and my family."

Authorities haven't disclosed a motive for the stabbings. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, who was running for Michigan attorney general when Abuelazam was captured, regularly held news conferences to publicize charges against him but now is keeping quiet. He doubts that Abuelazam can overcome the DNA evidence.

Booker, a carpenter, is considered the fifth victim in the slashing spree. He spent three weeks in the hospital, including two in a coma, and has a vertical scar from his chest to his groin to show where doctors frantically fixed major organs to save his life.

Booker said he's unable to work because nerves in his arms were damaged from knife wounds sustained as he shielded his face during the attack. He said he and wife Barb are broke and still owe $168,000 in hospital bills. A car needing some repair sits idle in the driveway because they can't afford insurance and plates.

"He's not insane. He's just a cold-blooded killer, flat out," Booker said of Abuelazam. "He's got death in his eyes."

During an interview, Barb left the living room to retrieve a photo showing her husband's baptism at Shawn Baptist Church, six months after he survived. It's a positive contrast to pictures of him in a hospital bed, when machines were keeping him alive.

"I believe in God a lot more," Booker said. "I believe in God now, definitely."