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The fatal stabbing of a Palestinian American boy is being investigated as hate crime

A person identified as a family member of the slain 6-year-old boy holds prayer beads at a news conference at the Muslim Community Center on Chicago's Northwest Side, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023.
Jim Vondruska
A person identified as a family member of the slain 6-year-old boy holds prayer beads at a news conference at the Muslim Community Center on Chicago's Northwest Side, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023.

Updated October 16, 2023 at 10:48 AM ET

A 71-year-old man from Illinois, accused of fatally stabbing a boy and seriously injuring a woman because of their Islamic faith and the Israel-Hamas war, has been charged with murder and hate crimes, among other offenses, authorities said.

Both victims, a 32-year-old woman and a 6-year-old boy, were found with multiple stab wounds to their chest, torso and upper extremities, inside a residence in the unincorporated Plainfield Township outside of Chicago, the Will County Sheriff's Office saidin a statement on social media.

The woman, identified as Hanaan Shahin, was transported to the hospital in serious condition, with more than a dozen stab wounds to her body, and is expected to survive. Her son, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was pronounced dead at the hospital, the sheriff's office said. An autopsy found the boy was stabbed 26 times.

The Justice Department announced Sunday that it had opened a federal hate crimes investigation into the events leading to the child's killing and the wounding of his mother.

"On behalf of the entire Justice Department, I want to express my deepest condolences to his family and his community as they grieve his loss," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

"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 added.

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden said in a statement on Sunday that they were "shocked and sickened" over the killing, calling on Americans to reject Islamophobia. "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."

Police say the suspect targeted the family for being Muslim

Deputies responding to the scene found the suspect, identified as Joseph M. Czuba, sitting outside the residence with a cut on his forehead. He was later taken to a local area hospital for treatment.

The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Al-Fayoume was Palestinian American.

The boy's father appeared at a news conference hosted by the organization on Sunday. The group said the father had shared text messages with them from the mother describing the incident.

The mother and son had been renting a floor in Czuba's house for two years without any incident, the organization said.

On Saturday morning, Czuba knocked on their door. Once Shahin opened it, "he tried to choke her and proceeded to attack her with a knife, yelling 'you Muslims must die!' When she ran into the bathroom to call 911, she came out to find that he had stabbed her 6-year-old son to death," the group said in a statement.

Al-Fayoume's funeral is scheduled for Monday.

Suspect expected in court on Monday

Czuba was charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of a hate crime, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

"Detectives were able to determine that both victims in this brutal attack were targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis," the sheriff office's statement read.

Will County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to NPR's request for additional information.

The suspect was taken to the Will County Adult Detention Facility, the statement added, and awaits a court appearance, scheduled for Monday.

A day prior to the attack, FBI warned its law enforcement partners of a rise in terror threats in the U.S. as the Israel-Hamas war rages.

"In this heightened environment, there's no question we're seeing an increase in reported threats, and we've got to be on the lookout, especially for lone actors who may take inspiration from recent events to commit violence of their own," Wray said, speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego on Sunday.

Joe Hernandez, James Doubek and Kevin Drew contributed reporting.

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