ATLANTA — Former Bradenton resident Elias Abuelazam was about to board a plane for Israel when police arrested him in connection with a three-month stabbing spree that left five men dead, 13 others wounded and a Michigan city in terror. In the moments before the man in flip-flops and shorts was handcuffed, passengers saw him nervously talking on his cell phone, insisting he wasn't violent.
The Israeli citizen and legal U.S. resident was charged Thursday in just one case out of Flint, Mich., where most of the stabbings occurred, but authorities said more charges are expected there and in Ohio and Virginia. At least 15 of the 18 victims were black, but it was unclear whether the attacks were racially motivated.
In Flint, about every four days since late May on average, the killer approached men on lonely roads at night, asking for directions or help with a broken-down car. Then he'd pull out a knife, plunge it into his victim and speed away. In one case he used a hammer. The youngest victim was 15; the oldest, 67.
Abuelazam, 33, was arrested late Wednesday at a boarding gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shortly before his plane to Tel Aviv was to take off. Officers seized him after he was paged over the intercom and told to report at a ticket counter.
Passengers on the Delta Air Lines flight were stunned but said Abuelazam appeared tense. He was talking to someone on his cell phone "about not being violent and different things like that," passenger Eugene Williams said after the plane landed in Tel Aviv.
Abuelazam lived in a Bradenton condominium for two months this year, and that address is listed as his home on his arrest warrant.
"Big, huge, tall man with muscles bulging from working out," said Jorge Diaz, who lived a few doors down from Abuelazam in Bradenton. "But also friendly, always smiling.
"He used to be a nice guy. We walked our dogs together. We talked a lot. He told me he was from Israel. I know he had a girlfriend."
Abuelazam began a 12-month lease in March, but came into the condo's office in May and asked to get out of it, said Richard Carlson, the owner and developer of the condo.
Carlson said Abuelazam paid an early termination fee with no questions asked. He had passed national and state credit, criminal and sexual predator checks before he was allowed to rent. The checks turned up only speeding tickets, Carlson said.
He said FBI agents visited him Thursday and took Abuelazam's leasing information.
His mother, Iyam al-Azzam, told Israel Radio on Thursday that she talked to her son by phone before he was supposed to board "and he sounded the same as usual, quiet and calm."
She said she was getting ready to pick her son up at the airport when relatives told her he had been arrested.
"I do not believe these charges are true," she said. "Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."
A tip late Tuesday — one of more than 500 received in the stabbings — led police to a market near Flint where Abuelazam worked.
In Michigan, Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton said investigators talked to employees, and a store video showed that he matched the description of the wanted man.
Antwione Marshall, the victim of the July 27 stabbing in which Abuelazam has been charged, said he identified Abuelazam as his assailant when the FBI visited him at 3 a.m. to show him a photograph of the suspect.
Abuelazam was living in Flint, where his uncle owned two adjacent homes. Leyton said police searched them and removed evidence but he declined to describe it.
The suspect left his vehicle in Michigan and flew Wednesday to Louisville, Ky., and then to Atlanta, the last stop before the planned international flight. Leyton said Abuelazam's uncle bought him the plane ticket, which cost about $3,000, and is now cooperating with police.
Information from the Bradenton Herald was used in this report.