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Israeli, arrested at airport, is suspect in Michigan killings

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Israeli citizen arrested in serial stabbing case
  • Elias Abuelazam, 33, is in custody in Atlanta, Georgia, in connection with five killings
  • The suspect was trying to board a Delta flight to Tel Aviv, Israel, officials say
  • Police say a total of 18 stabbings in Michigan, Virginia and Ohio are linked
  • Five people died in the attacks in Michigan

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- A 33-year-old Israeli citizen was charged with assault with intent to murder in Michigan Thursday in connection with 18 stabbings that left five people dead across three states, according to a Michigan prosecutor.

Elias Abuelazam was arrested Wednesday night at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. Abuelazam was trying to board a flight to Israel when he was taken into custody, police said Thursday.

The stabbings occurred in Michigan, Virginia and Ohio. Genesee County, Michigan. Prosecutor David Leyton said the lone charge filed against Abuelazam is related to a stabbing in Flint, Michigan on July 27.

With a manhunt on in connection to the stabbing spree, Michigan police received a tip that sent them Wednesday to a market where the suspect worked, Leyton said. After talking with employees, police watched surveillance video to determine if he matched the physical description of the attacker.

After tracking him to Louisville, Kentucky, authorities learned he had bought a $3,000 ticket from Atlanta to Tel Aviv, Israel, paid for by his uncle. Leyton said Abuelazam had flown from Detroit, Michigan, to Louisville and then on to Atlanta. It was not clear whether he was already en route to Atlanta when authorities identified him as a suspect in the killings.

Video: Authorities identify man arrested
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Video: Are stabbings racially motivated?
  • Michigan
  • Crime

A federal law enforcement official involved in the investigation said the man was traveling on an expired Israeli passport but was in the United States legally.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said they arrested Abuelazam at 10 p.m. ET as he attempted to board Delta Flight 152 bound for Tel Aviv. A Homeland Security official told CNN that the National Targeting Center had found his name on the passenger list.

Upon confirmation of his identity, the man was placed in the custody of the FBI and the Atlanta Police Department.

Over the past week investigators from a Michigan task force; police departments in Leesburg, Virginia, and Toledo, Ohio; the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies have investigated leads and tips from the public.

Authorities have said the same person is responsible for three recent attacks in Leesburg, Virginia, the stabbing deaths of five people and wounds to nine others in the Flint, Michigan, area and a stabbing Saturday that wounded a man in Toledo, Ohio.

Fourteen of the 16 victims in Michigan were African-American, police said. Flint is a majority African-American community. In majority-white Leesburg, Virginia, two victims were black and one was Latino.

Leesburg Police Chief Joseph Price said he believed the suspect was targeting African-Americans.

"For our community... when you look at our demographics and you look at the victims here, my belief is he selected the victims in Leesburg based on the color of their skin," Price said.

The Michigan attacks began May 24, with the most recent taking place August 2. The three attacks in Virginia occurred Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of last week.

The Michigan victims ranged in age from 17 to 60, authorities said. All of the victims were men, and in two cases they were people with special needs.

The suspect is said to have approached victims who were on foot during the early morning hours, asking for directions or other assistance to lure them close to his car, police said. Sgt. Bill Wauford of the Toledo Police Department said the method of attack in the Ohio case matched that described in the Michigan incidents.

The five Michigan fatalities were identified as David Motley, Emmanuel Dent, Darwin Marshall, Frank Kellybrew and Arnold Miner.

Leyton said Abuelazam worked in Flint until August 2 and then told fellow workers he was going to Virginia. He said the suspect had lived in the Flint area since May in a home owned by his uncle. The suspect had a previous address in Florida.

Arlington, Virginia, police arrested the suspect on August 5 for failure to obey a highway sign. At the time, police learned he had an outstanding warrant for a prior assault and he was arrested and his 1996 Chevy Blazer was impounded. Police found a knife and hammer inside the car.

But he was released that day, and the circumstances of his release were not clear.

Also that day, a victim was stabbed in the area, but he told police the assailant was driving a different vehicle. The Blazer was returned to the suspect that night.

Abuelazam was in all three states at the time of the stabbings in those states, according to authorities. After police identified his vehicle, they tracked him near an airport in Louisville, Kentucky.

Leyton said the suspect was in Toledo at the time of the stabbing there.

Investigators continue to investigate and Leyton said more charges are expected.

Members of the Michigan task force were in Atlanta Thursday, and Leyton's office was preparing papers for extradition.

According to Tracy Flanagan of the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, Abuelazam was processed at the Fulton County Jail and is being held there for the 68th District Court of Flint, Michigan. Barring special circumstances, he should have an extradition hearing in the coming days.

"We ought to remember the victims in all of this," Leyton said. "You have real people who have died and real families who have been torn apart. Our heart goes out to them."

CNN's Susan Candiotti and Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.