By COREY WILLIAMS and KATE BRUMBACK Associated Press Writers
ATLANTA (AP) The suspect in a three-state stabbing spree that left five people dead and 13 others wounded agreed Friday to return to Michigan to face charges in one of the attacks.
Elias Abuelazam, 33, was arrested Wednesday night in Atlanta before a flight to Israel, his native country, and charged with attempted murder in a July 27 knife strike in Flint that put the victim in a hospital for a week. Authorities said more charges were expected in Michigan, Ohio and Virginia.
Abuelazam, wearing a blue prison outfit, was expressionless as he responded to questions from Judge Richard Hicks during a brief hearing in Atlanta court Friday morning. He did not have an attorney with him.
Abuelazam first told Hicks he wanted to stay in Georgia and face the charges, but Hicks told him he would have to return to Michigan if he wanted to fight them.
After Hicks explained the process further, Abuelazam agreed to waive an extradition fight, a process that could take months, and go back to Michigan.
"Alright, then I'll do so," he said. "It sounds more logical to go right now than in 90 days."
The arrest has eased some but not all fears in Flint, one of Michigan's toughest cities, where the attacks have changed the way some residents view helping others.
The Flint stabbings started in May, with the attacker approaching men on lonely roads at night and asking for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then he would pull out a knife, plunge it into his victim and speed away.
Even if the assaults are over, at least some fear remains in Flint, the battered industrial city 14 of the stabbings, including all five deaths, occurred.
"It makes you not want to give anybody a hand with a vehicle if it breaks down," Aldridge Gardner, 46, said as he waited for a bus. "If it was a female, I would help her. If it was a guy, no, I'd be skeptical."
A tip, one of more than 500, led police this week to a market in Mount Morris Township, outside Flint, where Abuelazam had worked for a month. Investigators talked to employees, and a store video showed that he matched the description of the man wanted by authorities.
Abuelazam, however, was gone: He told people he was off to Virginia and hadn't been seen since his Aug. 1 shift.
Police in Arlington, Va., stopped him for a traffic offense Aug. 5 and arrested him on a 2008 misdemeanor assault charge from Leesburg, Va., where he had lived and worked in the mental-health field. A hammer and a knife were found inside the Chevrolet Blazer, which was returned to him after his brief detention. There was no national alert for Abuelazam or his vehicle.
Virginia authorities "had no idea at that time that he was involved in these crimes," Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton in Michigan said.
Abuelazam eventually returned to Michigan, obtained a $3,000 ticket to Tel Aviv from his uncle and made it as far as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where officers snatched the man in flip-flops and shorts after he was paged over the intercom.
Passengers on the Delta Air Lines flight were stunned but said Abuelazam appeared tense. He was talking to someone on his cell phone "about not being violent and different things like that," passenger Eugene Williams said after the plane landed in Tel Aviv.
Leyton would say only that "technology" was used to track Abuelazam outside Michigan.
Abuelazam, an Israeli citizen who is in the U.S. with a green card, was living in Flint, where his uncle owned two adjacent homes. Leyton said evidence was removed, but he declined to describe it. The uncle is cooperating.
Neighbors suspected nothing, even when police appeared in the wee hours Thursday.
"There were no signs. There were no red flags," Dan Smith said. "I've seen him but never talked to him. He was kind of a loner."
Abuelazam's mother, Iyam al-Azzam, told Israel Radio that she talked to him by phone before he was supposed to board a plane in Atlanta "and he sounded the same as usual, quiet and calm."
"I do not believe these charges are true," she said. "Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."
Abuelazam hails from Israel's tiny Christian Arab minority, which makes up less than 1 percent of the country's population of 7 million. One-fifth of Israel's citizens are Arab, and less than one-tenth of Israeli Arabs are Christian.
Neighbors on Abuelazam's street in an Arab section of the poverty-stricken Israeli town of Ramla said Friday that they were shocked by the charges. They identified the suspect as the son of a good family who lost his father when he was young.
"This is the best family you can imagine. They framed him. He's not like that. No way. I've known him since he was a kid. He's been my neighbor since he was a kid," one neighbor, who gave only his first name as Elias, told AP Television News.
A spokesman for the Israel Police's central district, which includes Ramla, said Abuelazam has no local criminal record.
The attacks began in Flint in late spring. The others were in Leesburg, Va., and Toledo, Ohio. In one case, the attacker used a hammer.
The youngest victim was 15; the oldest 67. At least 15 victims were black, although there's no evidence that race played a role, Leyton said. A motive was not known.
Abuelazam is charged with attacking Antwione Marshall of Flint, who said he was going into his apartment building two weeks ago when an assailant approached and asked for help with his car. Three of his organs were cut, and he has a long scar from his chest to his pelvic area.
Marshall, 26, said he wants to retaliate but "I'll let God handle it. Every time I look at my scar, I get angry."
Killed were David Motley, 31, Emmanuel A. Muhammad, 59, Darwin Marshall, 43, and Arnold R. Minor, 49, all of Flint, and Frank Kellybrew, 60, of Flint Township. They died before Aug. 4, when authorities concluded the attacks were the work of a serial killer.
A few dozen people who heard about the arrest gathered outside Abuelazam's former workplace, Kingwater Market. One yelled that the owner should have been suspicious. Police cleared the parking lot.
Manager Abdulla Farrah described Abuelazam as "good guy" but said " I hope they hang him" if he's the serial slasher.
A customer, Sam Peters, 30, who is black, recalled seeing Abuelazam with a bandage on his right hand and cuts on his fingers.
"We always thought somebody was trying to perpetrate a hate crime against us," he said. "People were calling me from out of town, telling me to be careful."
Friends of Motley, the first to die in May, created a memorial to him Thursday at Leith and Dexter streets in Flint, three blocks from where Abuelazam lived.
They placed two photos of Motley inside a plastic wreath and added a "Happy Birthday" balloon to the display. He would have turned 32 in July. Passers-by honked horns and yelled in support as three men sipped beers and recalled the father of five.
William Napier, 32, had a tattoo on his left arm: "RIP David 1978-2010."
"For once, Flint came together," said Anthony Cheathams Sr., 33. "Everyone was on the same accord to think about the serial killer."
Associated Press Writers David Runk in Flint, Mich.; Ed White in Detroit; Greg Bluestein in Atlanta; Nafeesa Syeed in Washington; Matthew Barakat in Leesburg, Va.; Yaniv Zohar in Tel Aviv; and Diaa Hadid in Ramla, Israel, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)