ATLANTA — A suspect in a string of 18 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.
Antwione 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."
In Michigan, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said authorities still don't know the motive. Most victims were black, and police have said the attacks may have been racially motivated, though Leyton said there was no evidence of that.
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.
Speaking in Arabic to Israel Radio, the suspect's mother said she spoke to her son by phone before he was supposed to board the plane.
"I do not believe these charges are true," Iyam al-Azzam said. "Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."
Passengers on that flight said as they arrived in Tel Aviv that he 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."
Leyton said Abuelazam's uncle bought him the plane ticket, which cost about $3,000, and is now cooperating with police.
The suspect has ties to Flint and lived for years in Leesburg, Va., the site of three similar attacks last week, Leesburg Police Officer Chris Jones said.
Police in Arlington, Va., said Abuelazam was arrested there during a routine traffic stop last week.
Arlington Detective Crystal L. Nosal 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.
Leyton, the Michigan prosecutor, said the Arlington stop was for failure to obey a highway sign and police found a knife in the driver's side door and a hammer on the floor of Abuelazam's 1996 green and gold Chevrolet Blazer. A hammer was used in one attack in Virginia, on a 19-year-old man in a parking lot.
Police impounded the Blazer, which matched a vehicle described by some stabbing victims who survived, then gave it back to Abuelazam, Leyton said.
According to court records in Loudoun County, where Leesburg is located, Abuelazam was convicted of lying on a handgun permit in December 2007. Abuelazam failed to disclose a 1995 low-level felony conviction in Sunnyvale, Calif., Loudoun County Commonwealth's Attorney James Plowman said. He served about a month in jail.
He was also charged with misdemeanor assault in a family related incident in 2008, and had a court date scheduled next week.
Abuelazam is an Israeli citizen who is living in the U.S. with a green card, Leyton said.
Police had focused their hunt on Flint — where 14 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.
In Mount Morris Township, near Flint, a few dozen people who heard about the arrest gathered outside a convenience store where Abuelazam worked. One yelled that the owner should have been suspicious. Police cleared the parking lot.
"He was a good guy. All of my employees, we never thought nothing about the guy," said Abdulla Farrah, manager of Kingwater Market.
Farrah said Abuelazam worked there for about a month before leaving Aug. 1. He said investigators looked at store video Wednesday.
Jessica Nimitz, an Arlington, Texas, woman who identified herself as Elias' ex-wife, said she was struggling to cope with the news too.
"I'm shocked," she said in a phone interview. "I'm trying to figure out what's going on."
As of Wednesday afternoon, a task force led by the Michigan State Police and including the FBI had received 469 tips.
The attacks began in late spring and police said they usually followed a pattern: The suspect approached black men late at night on lonely urban roads and asked for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then, without warning, he pulled out a knife and struck. Then, he sped away, leaving them for dead.
The brazen nature and the frequency of the attacks — the assailant 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.