FLINT, Mich. – A drifter accused of terrorizing a struggling city by faking car trouble then stabbing strangers who came to his aid was quickly convicted of murder Tuesday after jurors rejected an insanity defense.
It was the first trial for Elias Abuelazam, who is accused of a series of sometimes fatal stabbings in Michigan and two other states that began almost immediately after his arrival in Flint in May 2010.
After an eight-day trial, jurors took just a few hours to return a verdict in the death of Arnold Minor, a 49-year-old handyman stabbed after midnight near downtown Flint two summers ago. Members of the victim's family sat in the front row clutching a box with his cremated remains. The attack was one of 14 in the Flint area linked to Abuelazam — five people died — although the Israeli immigrant is not charged in every incident.
"It's been 658 days — I've been counting. He's going where he needs to be," Minor's sister, Stephanie Ward, said of Abuelazam's prison sentence. "He's not crazy."
Defense attorney Ed Zeineh barely mentioned the overwhelming evidence against Abuelazam during his closing argument and instead focused on his mental health, which dominated the end of the trial.
A psychiatrist hired by the defense said Abuelazam, 35, was paranoid schizophrenic who punched out after working the afternoon shift at a liquor store and cruised dark, lonely streets in his Chevy Blazer at the behest of "evil forces" in his mind. Three experts testifying for prosecutors, however, said Abuelazam was not mentally ill at the time and knew exactly what he was doing.
Minor's stabbing and the others were "planned, focused, done with care," Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said in his closing remarks to the jury.
Minor's blood was found on the steering wheel in Abuelazam's SUV and on pants and shoes inside his luggage as he tried to flee to Israel, his native country, in August 2010. The judge allowed four other stabbing victims to show their wounds to the jury and point to Abuelazam as the man responsible for the injuries.
"That was powerful," jury foreman Will Ogle said.
He said the insanity defense didn't fit for a number of reasons. Ogle said the defense summoned no friends or co-workers who could say that Abuelazam had symptoms of schizophrenia in his everyday life.
"The demons only come out at 3 o'clock in the morning when no one's looking? That doesn't add up," Ogle told The Associated Press in an interview at his home.
The verdict, he said, "was very easy. ... He's one evil dude."
Wearing a suit and tie throughout the trial, Abuelazam winced with discomfort as deputies escorted him into court and removed his handcuffs, moments before the guilty verdict was announced. He was handcuffed again and taken back to jail to await his life sentence on June 25.
"I'll live the rest of my career knowing the mentally ill truly go to prison," Zeineh told the AP as he left court.
Abuelazam, a native of Ramla, Israel, has spent half his life in the United States but had lived in Flint only a few months. He was living next to his uncle in the city, 60 miles north of Detroit, and was running a liquor store for $10 an hour.
By late July 2010, after at least a dozen people had been stabbed, police determined they likely had a serial killer on the loose. The big break came when the daughter of Abuelazam's co-worker at the party store saw a sketch of the suspect and his vehicle and called investigators.
"We had a mountain of evidence," Leyton told reporters.
Abuelazam faces two other murder trials in Flint as well as six cases of attempted murder. He's also charged with attempted murder in Toledo, Ohio, and suspected but not charged in similar attacks in Leesburg, Va., an area where he formerly lived.
Leyton, the prosecutor, said he needs time to consider whether to go to trial on the remaining Michigan charges or offer a plea deal. Abuelazam never will be free unless a higher court overturns the Minor verdict.
Despite the extraordinary allegations against him, Abuelazam remains an enigma. The uncle who lives in Flint testified for prosecutors but didn't stick around and watch the trial. He had no family among the spectators.
Trial testimony revealed some personal details about Abuelazam through his interviews with mental health experts. He was the youngest of six children and the only boy in his family in Israel. His father died when he was very young, and Abuelazam had two brief marriages.
"He said this: He was spoiled. He was special. ... He never learned a sense of responsibility," Dr. Elissa Benedek, a psychiatrist who testified for prosecutors, said last week.
Charles Clark, a psychologist who interviewed Abuelazam with Benedek, told jurors that critical questions about the stabbings remain unanswered.
"We didn't get an honest, full report from Mr. Abuelazam about why," he said.
Associated Press writer Mike Householder contributed to this report.
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