Police and friends of Nabra Hassanen, the 17-year-old who was killed after disappearing outside a Virginia mosque this weekend, told BuzzFeed News Monday that they believe 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, taken, and murdered early Sunday while returning to the mosque with a group of friends. Shortly after finding the remains, 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.” 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.
According to the police account, Torres drove up in a car “behind a group of teens, some who were walking and some who were on bikes.” He then got into a verbal argument with a bicyclist and the group scattered. Police claim Torres then drove his car up over the curb and around to a nearby parking lot where “he simply caught up with Nabra” who was on foot.
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.
After allegedly striking Hassanen with a baseball bat, officials said Torres took her to a second location in nearby Loudoun County, where another assault occurred. Police recovered Hassanen’s body Sunday afternoon from a pond in Sterling, Virginia. The Loudon County Sheriff’s Department confirmed Monday that she died in Loudon County.
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 that was with Hassanen Sunday morning.
According to Ibrahim, a large group of teens — around 10 boys and three or four girls, including Hassanen — was 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 did not know if Hassenen 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 told BuzzFeed News. “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 whether Torres had been drunk, but said that police are looking into whether intoxication “was a contributing factor.”
Police have released few details about Torres, who appeared by video conference in Fairfax County court Monday. The 22-year-old, who lives in Sterling, Virginia, is being held without bail.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said Monday that they have issued a request to take custody of Torres, who is from El Salvador, after he is released from Fairfax County jail.
“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. Cutrell added that the agency has not had any previous contact with Torres.
Ibrahim described the scene at the mosque Sunday as the community waited 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 [Hassanen’s] mom. That’s when everyone rushed in to the mosque and the news 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.”
Calling it a hate crime was “just like the easiest way to understand what seems like a senseless, random murder,” Ibrahim said.
“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.
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.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Torres is a US citizen. Immigration officials have not confirmed his residency status.