(CHICAGO) — The suspect in the vicious fatal stabbing of a Palestinian refugee boy in Illinois appeared in court Monday, as FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concerns that the unprecedented violence erupting in Israel and Gaza will spill over to United States as more domestic “lone actors” seek to spread antisemitic or Islamophobic hate.
Joseph Czuba, the 71-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran accused of killing 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume by stabbing him 26 times, and then stabbing his mother repeatedly in their suburban Chicago home on Saturday, was arraigned Monday afternoon at the Will County, Illinois, Courthouse in Joliet on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, and two counts of committing a hate crime.
The attack on the child came amid an increase in antisemitic and Islamaphobic incidents around the country and the world, including several in New York City and California.
Czuba appeared in court in shackles and was appointed a public defender. He did not enter a plea, and replied “Yes, sir” when asked by a judge if he understood the charges filed against him.
Shortly after the arraignment, mourners gathered at a mosque for Wadea’s funeral. The boy’s body was brought into the mosque in a small white coffin and prayed over before it was carried to a nearby cemetery for burial.
“He was a lovely boy who loved his family, his friends. He loved soccer, basketball, and he paid the price for the atmosphere of hate,” Ahmed Rehab, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said during a news conference Sunday.
Rehab said the boy’s father told him that Czuba had no problems with the family until Hamas militants carried out its surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, storming across the border from Gaza and indiscriminately killing men, women and children. He said the father informed him that Czuba even once built a treehouse for the boy and gave him toys.
“This atmosphere has created a monster out of a normal man who once built a treehouse,” Rehab said.
During Monday’s arraignment, prosecutors alleged Czuba first confronted the family on Oct. 11, telling them he was going to kick them out of the apartment.
Wadea’s murder prompted President Joe Biden to issue a statement Sunday saying he was “sickened” by the crime.
“This horrific act of hate has no place in America, and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are,” Biden said.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has instructed the Chicago FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois to open a federal hate crimes investigation into the killing.
“This incident cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence,” Garland said in a statement. “The Department of Justice is focused on protecting the safety and the civil rights of every person in this country.”
The killing happened Saturday morning in the unincorporated community of Plainfield Township, Illinois, when Wadea’s 32-year-old mother, Hanaan Shahin, answered a knock on the door of her ground-floor apartment and was confronted by Czuba, who was angry about what was going on in the Middle East, according to the Will County Sheriff’s Office. The verbal confrontation then turned physical as Czuba began stabbing Shahin with a serrated military-style knife with a seven-inch blade, according to the sheriff’s office.
“He knocked on the door and…he attempted to choke her, and said, ‘You Muslims must die,’ and attempted to stab her, and stabbed her. And she went to the bathroom and called 911. And this was all in her own words,” Rehab said during the Sunday news conference, reading text messages he said Shahin sent from a hospital to her slain child’s father, who was too emotionally shattered to speak.
After allegedly stabbing Shahin 12 times, she ran to a bathroom, locked herself in and called 911, prosecutors said in court. Czuba is accused of then unleashing his rage on her little boy, who turned 6 a couple of weeks ago, stabbing him repeatedly, according to the sheriff’s office.
In a statement Monday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas also condemned the child’s slaying.
“There is no humane world that can and should tolerate the murder of an innocent child because of his identity,” Mayorkas said. “The tragic events in the Middle East, begun by the brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas, have brought ideologies of hate to the fore across the world — notably antisemitism and Islamophobia. This must end. The diversity and inclusiveness that define America must prevail.”
During his annual remarks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Sunday, FBI Director Christopher Wray echoed the message of vigilance as the Israel-Hamas conflict continues to unfold.
While authorities say there have been no specific credible plots against the U.S. discovered in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas in Israel and the Israeli military response, Wray said there has been an increase in reported threats that U.S. law enforcement is aware of and is investigating.
“In this heightened environment, there’s no question we’re seeing an increase in reported threats, and we have to be on the lookout, especially for lone actors who may take inspiration from recent events to commit violence of their own,” Wray told the chiefs on Sunday. “And I’d encourage you to stay vigilant, because as the first line of defense in protecting our communities, you’re often the first to see the signs that someone may be mobilizing to violence.”
The New York Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned alleged anti-Palestinian attacks that occurred in Brooklyn last week, and called on public officials and the media to end anti-Palestinian incitement.
The NYPD hate crimes unit confirmed it is investigating several reported anti-Palestinian and antisemitic assaults in New York that have occurred since the Hamas surprise attack on Israel. In one incident that occurred on Wednesday in Brooklyn, police told New York ABC TV station WABC that two Jewish men approached two other men holding Palestinian flags, grabbed one of the flags and hit one of the victims with it before running away.
On Wednesday night, two 16-year-olds allegedly fired gel pellet guns outside the congregation B’Nai Yosef in Brooklyn. Police said the teens were taken into custody by the Flushing Shomrim, a Jewish watchdog group. Later that same night, an 18-year-old Middle Eastern man was allegedly assaulted by one of three men waving Israeli flags. Police said the men got out of their cars and asked the victim if he was Palestinian before one allegedly kicked and punched him, according to the NYPD, which is investigating the incident as a possible hate crime.
“Let me be clear: New York has zero tolerance for hate of any kind, not now and not ever,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a recent statement. “As we mourn the loss of innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives, there is no excuse or tolerance for antisemitism, Islamophobia, or bigotry and discrimination of any kind. No New Yorker should fear walking in our streets because of what they wear, what they believe, or where and how they practice their faith. I encourage anyone who experiences a hate crime or bias incident to report it to my office.”
In Fresno, California, police arrested a suspect who vandalized a bakery on Oct. 10 that he mistakenly thought was owned by a Jewish family. The owners, who are Armenian, told ABC affiliate station KFSN that the suspect was captured on surveillance video shattering their front window with a rock and leaving behind a note reading, “All Jewish businesses will be targeted.”
Fresno police also said a Jewish temple was vandalized that same day, and that officers are investigating whether the man arrested in the bakery attack is also responsible for the damage done to the synagogue.
ABC News’ Jack Date contributed to this report.
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