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Religious Overtones Color a Murder in Texas

The victim was a Jew, slaughtered in a Houston apartment, his throat slit so deftly with a 6-inch butterfly knife that he was nearly decapitated.

The killer was an Arab, a newly minted religious Muslim and the son of a millionaire Saudi businessman. He had been bailed out of trouble by the Saudi consulate after previous scrapes with the law, and in the hours after the slaying, authorities said, he plotted to flee to his homeland.

On the surface, the bizarre murder last summer of Ariel Sellouk at the hands of Mohammed Ali Alayed seemed to have all the elements of a classic hate crime, especially when viewed against the violence in the Middle East, continued uncertainty about American security in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the ongoing war on terrorism. But when Alayed appeared last week in a Houston courtroom to plead guilty to murder, there was no mention of terrorism or international intrigue.

The word “hate” with all its legal connotations was never even mentioned.

“It didn’t help me,” said Stephen St. Martin, assistant district attorney of Harris County.

“The hate crime statute would only enhance [the sentence] one penalty level, and murder is already at the highest level,” the prosecutor said. “So I would just be stating something else that I would have to prove.… Why make my job harder?”

Precisely what led to Sellouk’s gruesome slaying last year remains a mystery. According to police reports and interviews with the prosecutor and Alayed’s defense attorney, the two young men met about two years ago as students at Houston Community College. According to his lawyer, George Parnham, Alayed was hardly religious at that time. On the contrary, he was a frequent customer at various local bars and often was seen with Sellouk, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Morocco. The two young men reportedly shared a fondness for darts and young women. Alayed was a guest at Sellouk’s 21st birthday party.

A little more than a year ago, however, the two students parted ways. It is curious, Parnham acknowledged, that Alayed severed his relationship with Sellouk about the same time that he underwent a religious awakening and became an observant Muslim. Still, it is not clear whether Alayed’s conversion played a role in the breakdown of the friendship. Nor is there any evidence that it had an effect on the mayhem that followed, Parnham said.

“I don’t know if his religious conversion… played any … role in what occurred,” Parnham said. “I know of nothing… that would suggest that it was a factor, but… objectively speaking, you look at it, you put it into the equation.”

What is clear is that the two men had no contact for more than a year.

Then, in early August, Alayed reached out to his former friend. According to police reports, the two young men spent part of the evening of Aug. 5 at a local bar. That Alayed — who now considered himself a devout Muslim and who, according to the laws of the religion, should have shunned drinking and drinking establishments –– was in a tavern is just one of the baffling incongruities in the case, Parnham said.

“This case is filled with contradictions, and obviously that is one of them,” Parnham said.

By all accounts, there was no acrimony between Alayed and Sellouk the night of the murder. The two left the bar together and went back to Alayed’s apartment, a comfortable place in the upscale Galleria section of Houston that he shared with a roommate despite the $60,000 allowance Alayed received from his millionaire father.

Alayed’s roommate, who did not know Sellouk, was home when the two young men arrived, sometime around 1 a.m. on Aug. 6, according to police reports. The roommate later told police that, as far as he could tell, there was no argument between Alayed and the stranger he had brought home.

Suddenly, the roommate told authorities, Alayed pulled out a knife and attacked Sellouk, slitting his throat with such force and precision that, as the gruesome autopsy photos would later show, the young man’s head was nearly severed. Before he fled the apartment, Alayed told his roommate he was going to try to make it back to Saudi Arabia.

Though police arrived on the scene within minutes, Alayed remained at large for nearly a week before authorities found him hiding in a closet in a vacant apartment in the same complex where he lived. He was arrested without a struggle and later confessed to the crime.

Almost from the beginning, investigators suspected that Sellouk had been murdered because he was a Jew. The Anti-Defamation League also looked into the case to determine whether it was a hate crime.

Ultimately, Parnham said, such theories were “discounted.” The defense lawyer said, “there was no evidence to substantiate the hate element.”

St. Martin, however, was unwilling to rule out antisemitism as a possible factor in the killing. But, the prosecutor added, there may not have been enough evidence to prove it conclusively, and so he opted to try the case as a straight murder rather than a hate crime. “I’m not saying it was not a hate crime,” St. Martin told the Forward. “I’m just saying that it would have been extremely difficult to prove that to a jury.”

From the prosecution’s point of view, it was a wise call. Even Parnham acknowledges that St. Martin’s murder case against Alayed was nearly airtight. “The circumstances supporting the evidence in this case were overwhelming in favor of guilt,” he said. Among the solid factors arrayed against Alayed were the eyewitness testimony from Alayed’s roommate, Alayed’s own confession and his attempt to flee.

There also were intangibles, said Parnham, that made him leery of a trial. Among them was the potential impact that Sellouk’s family might have on the jury if they had been given a chance to testify.

St. Martin already had managed to inject Alayed’s Saudi background into the proceedings during a hearing, when he introduced evidence that the Saudi consulate had posted bail for Alayed on minor infractions in the past.

In one case, the Saudi government forfeited $15,000 when Alayed failed to appear to answer charges of driving with a revoked license, St. Martin said. This time around, the court set his bail at $5 million — and the Saudis did not pay it. Nor did anyone else, and Alayed remains behind bars.

Agents from the federal Homeland Security Department reportedly visited Alayed in jail without his lawyer’s knowledge. Homeland Security officials later told reporters that the visit involved matters of jail security and not the murder case. All the same, the meeting underscored what Parnham saw as post-September 11 suspicion, a trend that would seem to be working against his client. In short, it was clear that Parnham would have faced almost insurmountable obstacles in trying to defend Alayed.

“I think in today’s climate, the Saudi Arabian issue and everything stemming from 9-11, I think that it was a factor … when making a determination about whether or not to try a case before 12 Texans,” Parnham said.

In the end, Parnham opted to, as he put it, “basically cut my losses and save as much of Alayed’s life as I possibly could.”

On January 12, Alayed pled guilty to one count of murder. Under the deal he cut with the District Attorney’s office, the Saudi national, who could have faced 99 years in prison, will likely get 60 years when he is sentenced April 9.

It is entirely possible that the real motive behind the murder of Ariel Sellouk will never be known.

Even now, authorities won’t speculate on a motive, a refusal that the ADL’s Houston-based Southwestern chapter is willing to accept. “We are very concerned and feel for the family, and if there’s ever any indication that this was a hate crime, we’d certainly take a second look and work with the family to deal with it,” said Dena Marks, associate director of the chapter. “But at this point, we have to be satisfied with what law enforcement is saying.”

The family seems to be satisfied as well. Michel Sellouk, the victim’s father, who only a few months ago declared his belief that Sellouk was the victim of some kind of antisemitic rage, no longer offers any opinion about why his son was murdered.

All he is willing to say of the killer now, according to published reports, is that “something must have set him off to do this heinous act.”

And despite the hours he has spent with Alayed, Parnham, too, is at a loss.

“We have had a number of in-depth conversations and obviously I can’t go into it, but I will simply characterize my relationship with Alayad as extraordinary. That said, I’ve been casting about … to answer the question ‘Why?’ I’m still casting about.”

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