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THURS: New Mexico's Muslim community help bid to keep suspect jailed, + More

Alice Fordham

Albuquerque Muslims help bid to keep killings suspect jailed — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Members of New Mexico's Muslim community pushed Thursday for the Afghan refugee suspected of killing four Muslim men to remain behind bars pending trial — citing previous accusations of domestic violence and video surveillance that appeared to show him slashing the tires of a vehicle parked outside the local mosque.

The video from early 2020 had prompted leaders of the Islamic Center of New Mexico at the time to admonish Muhammad Syed and tell him not to return to the mosque.

The woman whose tires were slashed never went to the police and charges were never filed, said Ahmad Assed, the Islamic center's president.

But nearly two years later, her brother-in-law became one of the victims. Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi was fatally shot last November behind the market he owned with his brother.

Police have named Syed, 51, as the primary suspect in Ahmadi's death and in the fatal shooting of another man in early August. Authorities already have charged him with two counts of murder in the deaths of two other Muslim men in recent weeks.

Syed was detained this week and is scheduled to appear in court Monday, when a state judge will consider a motion by prosecutors seeking to detain Syed without bond pending trial. Prosecutors have argued that Syed is dangerous and that no conditions of release will ensure the community's safety.

Syed denied any connection to the crimes that shook the city and its small Muslim community after he was arrested during a traffic stop, saying he was heading to Houston to find a new home for his family over fear about the killings.

His public defenders declined comment on the case Thursday except to say that they were reviewing evidence and preparing for Monday's hearing.

"Given the level of media attention, we need to be very careful to not let this case be tried in the public forum and not a court of law," said Tom Clark, one of Syed's state appointed attorneys.

Assed and other members of the city's Muslim community said they were working with law enforcement to try to keep Syed in custody.

Despite police saying personal conflicts might be part of the motive for the killings, Assed said in an interview that Muslims are struggling to understand why the men who were killed were targeted and that the killings raised questions and concerns about whether more attacks had been planned.

"It's certainly our concern for this community as we move forward and it's a concern because not knowing more about the motive, we are at a disadvantage in understanding whether that was what was planned, that was it, or whether more victims were on the radar," Assed said.

Syed was arrested late Monday more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from his Albuquerque home. He told authorities he was on his way to Texas, citing the ambush-style killings as his concern. The first killing in November was followed by three between July 26 and Aug. 5.

According to a criminal complaint, police determined that bullet casings found in Syed's vehicle matched the caliber of the weapons believed to have been used in two of the killings and that casings found at the crime scenes were linked to guns found at Syed's home and in his vehicle.

Police said they received more than 200 tips and one from the Muslim community that led them to the Syed family. Syed knew the victims, authorities have said.

Syed has lived in the United States for about five years. When interviewed by detectives, Syed said he had fought against the Taliban, according to a criminal complaint filed in court Tuesday.

He lived in an apartment in Albuquerque with family members who told reporters that he was a truck driver but hadn't worked for a company in a long time.

Court documents show the domestic violence allegations Syed was accused of involved separate altercations with his wife, a son and his future son-in-law. The cases were dismissed because the victims declined to press charges.

Cannon Air Force Base ducking public meetings about ‘forever chemical’ risk, neighbors say - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico 

Dairy farmers and advocates near Cannon Air Force Base say officials there are stonewalling their call for transparency and more public forums to discuss PFAS contamination.

In October 2018, representatives from the military base just outside of Clovis approached Art Schaap, a dairy farmer on more than 3,500 acres adjoining the base, and told him that they’d detected per- and polyfluorakyl substances in the water he used to sustain 5,200 cows. Known as “PFAS” and deemed “forever chemicals,” the substances are linked with various cancers in people and do not break down naturally. They are often found in the fire-fighting foam used regularly since the 1970s on military bases for firefighter training and to suppress fuel fires.

Because of the contamination, Schaap had to euthanize several thousand of his cows, and others died soon after. He’s not sold a single gallon of milk or cut of beef since 2018, and the contamination has destroyed the fourth-generation farmer’s livelihood, he said. The corpses of the animals are still on his property covered in plastic, he said, because he can’t find any agency or company that will accept and safely dispose of them.

There are other dairies adjacent to Cannon Air Force Base, and the state Environment Department and U.S. Department of Defense have since battled on several fronts about how to remediate the PFAS and also determine the extent of contamination. That includes litigation in federal court and also an effort by Cannon to receive a discharge permit from the Water Quality Control Commission.

And members of the public have continually sought answers from the Cannon, which they said are lacking.

“We are getting stonewalled,” Schaap said Friday at a Clovis meeting of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, a bipartisan legislative committee made up of state representatives and senators. “The Air Force and Department of Defense seem to have a total disregard for our family and our community and our employees and business. This farm has been the blood-life for my family and for many hard-working employees that lived and worked on the farm.”

The committee invited Department of Defense officials to attend the Clovis meeting, though none accepted the invite, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces).

Base leaders and the Air Force Civil Engineering Center hold quarterly meetings with the public, though those sessions have been held virtually. And the most recent meeting devolved into chaos and ended abruptly, according to both advocates and a base spokesperson.

“On June 15, 2022, AFCEC was hosting a quarterly community call regarding ongoing PFAS remediation efforts at Cannon AFB when an individual assumed the identities of multiple meeting participants in a malicious effort to cause disruption,” a spokesperson told Source New Mexico. “The disrespectful comments and harassing images communicated by the unidentified individual resulted in the immediate end to the meeting.”

John Kern, executive director for the advocacy group Clean Water Partnership – Cannon, attended the meeting. He said the meeting was “hacked” by an unknown individual with no apparent explanation, followed by an abrupt ending. The “hacker” also shared “risque” images, he said.

Afterward, he emailed the base public affairs staff to ask for an in-person meeting, which he said would improve dialogue.

“Given the improvement in the COVID 19 situation in Curry County…and the disastrous presentation of the last quarterly meeting on the internet-based call, we hereby request that the Public Affairs Office schedule its next meeting as a public forum — one in which the members of the public may participate in person,” he wrote in an email he provided to Source New Mexico.

But the base said it would not be offering a public forum like Kern described any time soon.

“(Cannon’s Colonel Terrence) Taylor has indicated he will not expose members and families of Cannon AFB in any forum where there is the possibility of harassment or ridicule,” the spokesperson told Kern in an email. “He believes the events of the last PFAS update showed there are some who have little-to-no respect for the discussions or our folks.”

The spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for more comment from Source New Mexico for more details of the disruption, including whether it was caused by an advocate or an outside hacker and what the images might have depicted.

Video from the aborted meeting has not yet been made publicly available.

The base spokesperson did say, however, that the base is taking PFAS seriously. It has spent $32 million to investigate the scope of the contamination and is studying what it will take to remediate the impact. The quarterly meetings also include farmers and state and federal regulators, the spokesperson noted.

Cannon is home to the 27th Special Operations Wing of the United States Air Force and is a major economic driver for the city and region. It employs about 6,000 people and had an economic impact of $910 million in 2016, according to a recent presentation to a legislative committee.

The PFAS contamination hasn’t only affected Schaap’s operation, known as Highland Dairy. Other dairies nearby, already facing economic headwinds from inflation and supply-chain issues, are battling fears of tainted products, even if they have tested and found no PFAS in their water supply.

“The damage has been done. We’ve noticed a drop in our sales,” said Traci van der Ploeg, a dairy farmer and daughter of two Air Force veterans. “And a lot of our customers have lost trust in our product. And that’s really hard for us because anybody here in the dairy industry knows that we pride ourselves on the safety of our product.”

PFAS in soil, water or air can be absorbed by plants and animals, and lead to contaminated foods, according to theFood and Drug Administration. Kidney and testicular cancer are linked to PFAS, as is higher cholesterol and a reduced immune response, among other ailments.

Van der Ploeg, who spoke up during the public comment period, said she and other dairies risked losing their livelihoods if governments don’t act.

Steinborn, the committee chair, used the opportunity to again criticize the Defense Department for missing the hearing.

“I do think that we’re all going to have to work together so that we can deal with this very real problem,” he said. “And I urge the Department of Defense to come to the table now for the good of the community.”

Evictions spiking as assistance, protections disappear - By Michael Casey Associated Press

Jada Riley thought she had beaten homelessness.

The 26-year-old New Orleans resident was finally making a steady income cleaning houses during the pandemic to afford a $700-a-month, one-bedroom apartment. But she lost nearly all her clients after Hurricane Ida hit last year. Then she was fired from a grocery store job in February after taking time off to help a relative.

Two months behind on rent, she made the difficult decision last month to leave her apartment rather than risk an eviction judgment on her record. Now, she's living in her car with her 6-year-old son, sometimes spending nights at the apartments of friends or her son's father.

"I've slept outside for a whole year before. It's very depressing, I'm not going to lie," said Riley, who often doesn't have enough money to buy gas or afford food every day.

"I don't want to have my son experience any struggles that I went through."

Eviction filings nationwide have steadily risen in recent months and are approaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels in many cities and states. That's in stark contrast to the pandemic, when state and federal moratoriums on evictions, combined with $46.5 billion in federal Emergency Rental Assistance, kept millions of families housed.

"I really think this is the tip of the iceberg," Shannon MacKenzie, executive director of Colorado Poverty Law Project, said of June filings in Denver, which were about 24% higher than the same time three years ago. "Our numbers of evictions are increasing every month at an astonishing rate, and I just don't see that abating any time soon."

According to The Eviction Lab, several cities are running far above historic averages, with Minneapolis-St. Paul 91% higher in June, Las Vegas up 56%, Hartford, Connecticut, up 32%, and Jacksonville, Florida, up 17%. In Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, eviction filings in July were the highest in 13 years, officials said.

Some legal advocates said the sharp increase in housing prices due to inflation is partly to blame. Rental prices nationwide are up nearly 15% from a year ago and almost 25% from 2019, according to the real estate company Zillow. Rental vacancy rates, meanwhile, have declined to a 35-year low of 5.8%, according to the Census Bureau.

A report last month from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a tenant working full time needs to make nearly $26 per hour on average nationally to afford a modest two-bedroom rental and $21.25 for a one-bedroom. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

"Landlords are raising the rent and making it very unaffordable for tenants to stay," said Marie Claire Tran-Leung, the eviction initiative project director for the National Housing Law Project.

"Inflation has really shrunk the supply of housing that is available for people with the lowest incomes," she added. "Without more protections in place, which not all states have, a lot of those families will be rendered homeless."

Patrick McCloud, chief executive officer of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said the trend is a return to normal. "No one likes evictions, but they are in some ways a reset to the economy," McCloud said, adding that evictions have been "artificially depressed."

"Housing is based on supply and demand. And when no one moves and you have no vacancies, you have a tight market and prices go up."

Graham Bowman, a staff attorney with Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Ohio, said evictions there are rising — 15% above historic averages in June alone — at a time when there are fewer places for those forced out to go.

Sheryl Lynne Smith was evicted in May from her two-bedroom townhouse in Columbus after she used her rent money to repair a sewage leak in the basement. Smith, who is legally blind and has a federal housing voucher, fears she won't be able to find anything by September when the voucher expires because of rising housing prices and the eviction on her record.

"It's very scary," said Smith, 53, whose temporary stay at a hotel funded through a state program ends this weekend.

In Boise, Idaho, Jeremy McKenney, 45, moved into his car last week after a judge sided with a property management company that nearly tripled the rent on his two-bedroom house. The Lyft and DoorDash driver will have to rent a hotel room whenever he has custody of his children, 9 and 12.

"It's definitely mind blowing," said McKenney, adding that everything on the market is beyond his reach even after a nonprofit offered to cover the security deposit. "I have never been homeless before. I have always had a roof over my head."

The other challenge is the federal emergency rental assistance that helped keep millions housed during the pandemic has dried up in some jurisdictions or been increasingly rejected by some landlords.

"What really gets me is there is rental assistance and so many landlords just don't want it. They would rather throw someone on the street than take money," Eric Kwartler, managing attorney of Lone Star Legal Aid's Eviction Right to Counsel Project, which covers Houston and Harris County in Texas. "If you take the money, you can't evict them. They want them out."

The U.S. Treasury said last week that more than $40 billion of the $46.5 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance had been spent or allocated.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia have gone through at least 90% of their first disbursement. Twelve states and the District of Columbia had used 50% of the second allocation, known as ERA2, by the end of May. Three — Idaho, Ohio and Iowa — haven't spent any ERA2 money and two — Nebraska and Arkansas — didn't accept the funds.

"The public health emergency may still be here but the funds to deal with it are rapidly disappearing," said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

Treasury is encouraging states and cities to tap other federal stimulus funds to cover the gaps. So far, over 600 state and local governments had budgeted $12.9 billion in stimulus funds to meet housing needs, including affordable housing development.

Gene Sperling, who oversees President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, highlighted the success of its rental assistance program, which has reached 7 million mostly low-income households.

But, more needs to be done to ensure the country doesn't return to pre-pandemic times when 3.6 million tenants were evicted annually and "evictions were too often a first resort, not a last resort," he told a forum on eviction reforms at the White House last week.

Some lawmakers said the answer is a permanent rental assistance program. A bill introduced in July would provide $3 billion annually for rental assistance and fund services to keep families housed. A study commissioned by the National Apartment Association and the National Multifamily Housing Council says the answer is building 4.3 million apartments by 2035.

Other advocates called for permanent legal protections like right to counsel for tenants or eviction diversion programs to resolve evictions before they reach the courts.

In Richmond, Virginia, eviction filings in June were 54% below historic averages, attributed to rental assistance and more legal representation for tenants in court, Wegbreit said. Similar programs were credited with New Mexico's eviction filings being 29% below historic averages in June.

Philadelphia, which passed a law-making eviction diversion mandatory through this year, saw filings down 33%. The City Council in Philadelphia also approved spending $30 million over two years for rental assistance.

"We are trying to change the way we look at this issue in Philadelphia, where the only thing you do is go to landlord tenant court or start an eviction," said Catherine Anderson, supervising attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance, who oversees the paralegals on the Save Your Home Philly hotline.

Pueblo Leaders decry ‘violence’ against cultural sites, including Bandelier National Monument Kiva - By Nash Jones, KUNM News 

Pueblo leaders are speaking out against damage done to a kiva at the Bandelier National Monument.

In a statement released Wednesday, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents New Mexico’s 20 pueblos, said the National Park Service notified the group of vandalism in late July. The leaders pushed back on the agency’s characterization of the damage, saying — rather than vandalism — they see it as an “act of human violence to our current living cultures.”

The council said it collectively condemns the act, and called on the public to“cease desecrating our beloved traditional cultural properties.”

According to the statement, this marks the fifth time this year a Pueblo cultural property in the Jemez mountains and near the Caja Del Rio has been targeted.

The governors said — in the short-term — they want a full investigation into this most recent incident. Longer term, they’d like to see the federal government strengthen its policies and procedures to help prevent such damage from continuing.

Afghan man charged in killing of 2 Muslims in Albuquerque - By Stefanie Dazio And Mariam Fam Associated Press

Police announced a breakthrough Tuesday in the killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, charging a man from Afghanistan — himself a Muslim — with two of the slayings and identifying him as a prime suspect in the other killings that put the entire community on edge.

Muhammad Syed, 51, was taken into custody a day earlier after a traffic stop more than 100 miles away, authorities said.

Three of the four ambush shootings happened in the last two weeks. Police Chief Harold Medina said it was not clear yet whether the deaths should be classified as hate crimes or serial killings or both.

Investigators received a tip from the city's Muslim community that pointed toward Syed, who has lived in the U.S. for about five years, police said.

Police were looking into possible motives, including an unspecified "interpersonal conflict."

When asked specifically if Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was angry that his daughter married a Shiite Muslim, Deputy Police Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock did not respond directly. He said "motives are still being explored fully to understand what they are."

Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, acknowledged that "there was a marriage," but he cautioned against coming to any conclusions about the motivation of the suspect, who he said attended the center's mosque "from time to time."

"Knowing where we were, you know, a few days ago to where we are today is an incredible sigh of relief that we're breathing," he said. "Lives have been turned upside down."

The exact nature of the relationships between Syed and the victims – and the victims to one another – remained unclear. But police said they continue to investigate how they crossed paths before the shootings.

The slayings drew the attention of President Joe Biden, who said such attacks "have no place in America." They also sent a shudder through Muslim communities across the U.S. Some people questioned their safety and limited their movements.

When told about the arrest before the suspect's identity was made public, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, brother of one of the victims, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said he felt relieved but needed to know more about the assailant and the motive.

"This gives us hope that we will have (the) truth come out," he said. "We need to know why."

It was not immediately clear whether Syed had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan, was killed Friday night. His death came just days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, who were also from Pakistan and members of the same mosque.

The earliest case involves the November killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan.

For now, Syed is charged in the killings of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain because bullet casings found at the crime scenes were linked to a gun found at his home, authorities said.

Investigators consider Syed to be the primary suspect in the deaths of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi but have not yet filed charges in those cases.

Police said they were about to search Syed's Albuquerque home on Monday when they saw him drive away in a Volkswagen Jetta that investigators believe was used in at least one of the slayings.

Officers followed him to Santa Rosa, about 110 miles east of Albuquerque, where they pulled him over. Multiple firearms were recovered from his home and car, police said.

Syed's sons were questioned and released, according to authorities.

Prosecutors expect to file murder charges in state court and are considering adding a federal case, authorities said.

Shiites make up the second largest branch in Islam after Sunnis.

Aneela Abad, general secretary at the Islamic center, said the two Muslim communities in New Mexico enjoy warm ties.

"Our Shiite community has always been there for us and we, Sunnis, have always been there for them," she said.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain had worked as a field organizer for Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury's campaign.

"Muhammad was kind, hopeful, optimistic," she said, describing him as a city planner "who believed in democracy and social change, and who believed that we could, in fact, build a brighter future for our communities and for our world." ___

Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Fam from Winter Park, Florida. Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in LA also contributed to this report.