FAIRFAX, Va. – A morning of prayer and reflection in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan ended in tragedy when 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen left her mosque with friends for a pre-dawn meal and was attacked with a baseball bat.
Authorities said Hassanen died of blunt force trauma to her upper body after 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres came out of his car swinging the bat at her group of friends early Sunday. Police said Martinez Torres appeared to be motivated by road rage, not religious hatred, after driving up to the teenagers along the road in suburban Washington.
Vigils are planned around the country Tuesday to honor Hassanen and stand in solidarity with her family, said Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment CEO Rana Abdelhamid. Groups in New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Detroit are joining the effort. Another vigil, in Hassanen's hometown of Reston, Virginia, is planned for Wednesday.
Police said an altercation began between Martinez Torres and a teenage boy in the group who was riding a bicycle. They said and they have found no evidence to suggest Hassanen's killing was a hate crime.
"Nothing indicates that this was motivated by race or by religion. It appears the suspect became so enraged over this traffic argument that it escalated into deadly violence," Fairfax County Police Spokeswoman Julie Parker said.
Many outside observers remain deeply skeptical.
Abas Sherif, a spokesman for the victim's family, said Nabra and all the other girls in her group were wearing Muslim head coverings and loose Islamic robes when the driver approached.
"Road rage. Indeed. If you think for a minute that her appearance had nothing to do with this crime, you're lying to yourself," tweeted attorney Rabia Chaudry, a prominent Muslim activist who lives in the Washington suburbs.
Hassanen was with a group of as many as 15 other teens, boys and girls who had left their Sterling-area mosque between Ramadan prayers to get food at a McDonald's, Parker said.
They were making their way back to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Sunday, some walking and some riding bikes, when the suspect drove up to the group and began to argue with a male teen, Parker said.
Martinez Torres drove onto a curb and the group scattered, Parker said. Torres caught up with them in a nearby parking lot, got out of his car and chased them, reaching Hassanen and hitting her with the bat; then, he put her in his car and took her to another nearby location, where he assaulted her another time, Parker said. Police did not describe the second assault.
Authorities later found her body in a pond.
Two boys in their group who spoke with The Associated Press after paying condolences to the family Monday said they didn't witness anything to make them think it was a hate crime. They said that when the car pulled up beside them and slowed down, they thought at first that the driver might even be a friend, playing a joke.
But when the car hopped the curb, they perceived hostile intent and began to run. The group of more than a dozen kids did not immediately realize Hassanen was missing. Once they did, they told security officials at the mosque, who contacted police. The boys declined to give their names.
The girl's father, Mohmoud Hassanen Aboras of Reston, said he doesn't understand how this could have happened because his daughter was a friend to everyone.
Aboras emigrated from southern Egypt and has three younger daughters, who like Nabra were born in the U.S. He's not particularly interested in knowing why his daughter was attacked or whether it could be considered a hate crime. His daughter is gone, regardless.
"My daughter is dead, and I don't want anyone to feel what I feel, to lose your 17-year-old daughter ... Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hispanic, whatever," he said, surrounded by more than a dozen friends and family in his apartment.
ADAMS is one of the largest mosques in the country and is particularly busy during Ramadan. Observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, and since Ramadan this year overlaps with the summer solstice, and sunrise occurs well before 6 a.m., some Muslims will eat large meals in predawn hours.
Martinez Torres, who is charged with murder, was arraigned Monday and denied bail pending a July 19 court appearance. A judge appointed him a public defender, whose office declined comment. Immigration authorities put a detainer on him, saying he's a citizen of El Salvador and there's probable cause to believe he lacks permission to be in the U.S.
Durkin Richer and Rankin reported from Richmond, Virginia; Associated Press reporter Matt Barakat contributed from Fairfax, Virginia.