Police and friends of Nabra Hassanen, the 17-year-old who was killed after disappearing outside a Virginia mosque, told BuzzFeed News a road rage incident led to her death.
Police in Fairfax, Virginia, found Hassanen’s body in a pond after she was attacked with a baseball bat, kidnapped, and murdered early on Sunday while returning to the mosque with a group of friends. Shortly after finding the remains on Sunday afternoon, officers arrested 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres and charged him with murder in connection to the case.
In a press conference Monday night, Fairfax County Police said that Hassanen’s death “appears to be the result of a road rage incident,” explaining that Torres allegedly came up in his car “behind a group of teens, some who were walking and some who were on bikes. There was a verbal argument with a bicyclist and the suspect and the group scattered. Torres then allegedly drove his car up over the curb and around to a nearby parking lot where “he simply caught up with Nabra,” who was walking.”
Officials again stressed that they do not believe her murder was a hate crime.
“At this time we have no evidence that the murder was motivated by religious or ethnic bias,” said Julie Parker, the department’s director of public affairs.
After striking her with a baseball bat, official say Torres took Hassanen in his car to a second location nearby in Loudoun County, where he assaulted her again and killed her. He then dumped her body in a pond in Sterling, located in Loudoun County, where she was recovered by Fairfax County Police’s underwater search unit.
Torres was taken into custody at 5:15 a.m. by a patrol officer who noticed his car, which witnesses had flagged.
“It appears suspect became so enraged in this traffic argument it escalated into deadly violence,” Parker said.
Asma Ibrahim, who attended South Lakes High School with Hassanen and who grew up in the same neighborhood, told BuzzFeed News she had spoken to some of the teens who were in the group from which Hassanen went missing.
According to Ibrahim, a large group of teens — including around 10 boys and three or four girls, including Hassanen — were walking back towards the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, Virginia, after grabbing breakfast at McDonald’s before beginning their fast at sunrise for Ramadan.
Ibrahim said she heard from witnesses that two of the boys in the group, who were on bikes, initiated the altercation with the suspect, who was in his car.
“One boy insulted his car, as it was an old, broken-down car,” Ibrahim said. “Another boy was cutting off the man by driving in front of his car. This aggravated the man. They were just basically messing with the guy in the car.”
She backed up another witness who also described the suspect as drunk, adding that he “got mad.”
“He attempted to bring the car on the sidewalk and driver over them,” Ibrahim said.
He then got out of the car with a metal bat and chased the group of teens, she said.
“One boy [in the group] described it as creepy,” Ibrahim said. “Everyone was running for their lives as the man chased them and they didn’t realize that Nabra wasn’t there with them.”
She said one girl in the group saw Hassenen fall down, but “she kept running and didn’t say anything.”
Ibrahim said the girl who saw Hassanen fall down did not know if she tripped, or if the suspect hit her with the bat.
Officer Tawny Wright, a spokesperson for the Fairfax County Police Department, confirmed some of the details of Ibrahim’s account.
“Something upset the man and he got out of his car and went after them” during the altercation, Wright said. “The missing teen was the closest one to him. He assaulted her.”
She did not say who initiated the altercation, but said police were looking into what the sparked the dispute.
Wright did not confirm if Torres was drunk, but said that it was part of their investigation and police were looking to see if “it was a contributing factor.”
Yufra Abdelmuid, a family friend of Hassanen who has been helping the family plan the funeral, also told BuzzFeed News that Torres appeared to be drunk. However, her account of how the altercation began differed slightly from Ibrahim.
Abdelmuid said she knows the other teens in the group, and was with them when they gave statements to police detailing how Nabra got separated during the attack.
Relaying what the teens witnessed, Abdelmuid said Torres was at the McDonald’s eating and was “obviously drunk.”
“He was at the McDonald’s eating at the same time and then came up behind them when he was in his car” Abdelmuid said. “He threw a beer bottle at them and they started running to the Bowl America parking lot nearby.”
Police, however, said that there was no altercation or interaction between the teens and Torres at the restaurant.
The suspect then tried to drive over the sidewalk after the group ran into the parking lot, and got mad when he couldn’t, according to Abdelmuid.
“That’s when he got out of his car with a bat and hit [Nabra] over the head,” Abdelmuid said.
The girls were all wearing traditional Muslim clothing, called abayas, and “definitely stood out,” she added.
Ibrahim said that she and others were at the mosque waiting for news of Hassanen after she was reported missing.
“We just kept waiting and waiting for good news,” Ibrahim said. “We heard a scream from [Nabra’s] mom. That’s when everyone rushed in to the mosque and the news [of Nabra’s death] was delivered. And everyone just started collectively crying.”
Ibrahim described Hassanen as a “very funny” girl who was “dedicated to her school work.”
“She had the best jokes. She was also a very good dancer and had good fashion taste,” Ibrahim said. “We would go to the playground in our neighborhood and talk and talk for hours.”
Ibrahim, who is the secretary of the Muslim Students Association at South Lakes High School, said that media reports and “people on Twitter” think it was a hate crime “just because she was wearing a hijab.”
She said that many people at the mosque, and the teens who were there during the incident, don’t believe it was a hate crime “because of the altercation that happened right before.”
However, Hassanen’s mother, Sawsan Gazzar, told the Washington Post she thought it had to do with the way her daughter was dressed “and the fact that she’s Muslim.”
“Why would you kill a kid? What did my daughter do to deserve this?” she asked.
However, Ibrahim said that calling it a hate crime was “just like the easiest way to understand what seems like a senseless, random murder.”
“From what I’ve heard, I think she was just a victim to the boys’ nonsense. Unfortunately, Nabra had to take the consequences of that,” she said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials also say they want to investigate Torres, who is a US citizen from El Salvador, after he has been released from custody, adding that they have had no previous encounters with him.
“ICE lodges detainers on aliens who have been arrested on local criminal charges when the agency has probable cause to believe an alien is removable from the United States,” Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for ICE, said in a statement.