The baseball-bat beating death of a 17-year-old Muslim girl in Sterling, Virginia, is being investigated as road rage and not as a hate crime, Fairfax County police said Monday.
Darwin A. Martinez Torres, a 22-year-old Sterling resident, was charged with assaulting and murdering Nabra Hassanen, who was attacked as she walked with friends near the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center early Sunday after overnight Ramadan prayers. According to police, as many as 15 teenagers may have been present — some walking, some riding bicycles.
Martinez Torres drove past the group and got into an argument with a boy riding a bicycle in the roadway, police said. As the altercation escalated, the suspect drove onto the curb, scattering the teenagers, and followed them to a nearby parking lot.
Police said the driver got out of his car with a baseball bat, chased Hassanen on foot and hit her with the bat. He took her in his car “to a second location” in nearby Loudon County, police said.
Hassanen’s body was later found in a pond. Medical examiners said the teen died of blunt force trauma to her head and neck.
“No evidence has been recovered that shows this was a hate crime,” Fairfax County Police spokeswoman Julie Parker said during a news conference Monday evening.
Police said there was no indication of racial slurs or any reference to the teens’ religion during the attack. However, the investigation is ongoing, and police would not rule out that the crime was racially or religiously motivated.
Police released few details on Martinez Torres. He is a citizen and national of El Salvador, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson. The agency has lodged a detainer request with local police. (ICE lodges detainers when it has probable cause that someone arrested on criminal charges “is removable from the United States.”)
ICE has had no “prior encounters” with Martinez Torres, the spokesperson said, declining to provide details on his immigration history due to privacy regulations.
Under Virginia law, a hate crime is defined as a criminal act intended to intimidate, harass or instill fear in an individual due to their religion, race or ethnic origin.
Hassanen’s killing comes amid rising Islamaphobia, especially against Muslim women. Just last month, two men in Portland, Oregon, were stabbed to death and a third was injured after they tried to stop their assailant from harassing two young women who appeared to be Muslim. Across the country, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, urged police to “conduct a thorough investigation” into the Virginia killing.
“As we grieve for Nabra’s loss, we also urge law enforcement authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of a possible bias motive in this case, coming as it does at a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate attacks nationwide,” the group’s national executive director, Nihad Awad, said in a statement prior to the police news conference.
Hassanen’s parents, meanwhile, have said they believe their daughter’s religion was a factor.
“I’m sure the guy hit my daughter because she’s Muslim and she was wearing the hijab,” Sawsan Gazzar, Hassanen’s mother, told The Washington Post. “I don’t feel safe at all anymore, as a Muslim living here now. I’m so worried about sending my kids out and their coming back as bodies.”
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