TAMPA — It’s been three days since congregants leaving a late-night prayer service at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay’s flagship mosque heard gunshots ring out in the darkened parking lot. An off-duty deputy quickly apprehended the shooter, who is a member of the mosque, early Monday.
But no new information has been released in the death of 36-year-old Rafat Saeed.
No arrests have been made — or announced. Nor has the identity of the man who deputies said shot Saeed been released. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment about the case, or offer any updates when asked by the Tampa Bay Times.
The agency won’t even say if the alleged shooter has claimed self-defense, if Florida’s stand your ground law has complicated the investigation. All a sheriff’s spokesperson would say Wednesday is that the investigation is still ongoing.
The lack of answers, of information, is threatening to tear the mosque’s congregation apart.
Mosque spokesman Ahmed Bedier said the Islamic community has started to fracture, circulating “conspiracies and rumors” on social media that “will have repercussions for entire families, for the entire community.”
“Now we have some people saying they’re not going to go to prayers because they feel unsafe, but can we blame them?” Bedier said. “I’m upset. I don’t know what happened and I can’t think of anything that would justify a senseless act of violence like that, but whatever happened it’s making our community look very bad and that is a shame.”
Late Tuesday, Bedier delivered an impassioned, 22-minute appeal to those gathered at the mosque for a Ramadan service. He dispelled rumors that the shooter — who volunteers with the mosque’s security group — was working for the leadership of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay at the time of the shooting.
Bedier also denied the mosque was involved in any kind of “cover-up.”
Those accusations hung over Saeed’s funeral services earlier Tuesday afternoon, where scores of protestors stood by his graveside holding signs with message such as “We Need Justice” and calling on the Sheriff’s Office to make an arrest.
That angst has also spread through social media, with members of the congregation expressing their concerns on the Islamic Society’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
“Everyone on the property of the masjid is the responsibility of the masjid,” a poster who goes by Omar Najm wrote in on the mosque’s Facebook page. “They have to be liable to hire the correct person in the correct spot, not bring someone in because he is a relative of someone.”
“You all are a bunch of pathetic liars,” wrote a poster who goes by Rian Al-Jiburi. “We’ll do everything legally in our power for the victim to receive justice.”
Bedier said both Saeed and the unidentified man were active volunteers there, but denied accusations made in social media that the alleged shooter was working for the mosque’s leadership, or “masjid.”
“The masjid is not covering up anything, and even if they wanted to it’s not possible because when the shooting happened there was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy feet away from the crime,” Bedier said, “and he was the first person on the scene because he was so close.
“Within seconds, he apprehended the shooter, handcuffed him, separated all the witnesses, isolated them, and they were kept for hours ... not allowed to talk to anyone from the mosque or even each other.”
The alleged shooter is talking to deputies, according to the Sheriff’s Office. There were few witnesses to the altercation that took place before the shooting, Bedier said, and none saw the entire incident from beginning to end.
Deputies kept the witnesses at the mosque, located at 7326 E Sligh Ave., until about 3 a.m. The alleged shooter was immediately loaded inside a sheriff’s cruiser and taken in for questioning. The mosque also handed over all of its surveillance video to investigators, Bedier said.
The mosque’s leadership and sheriff’s deputies learned from several people, Bedier said, that Saeed and the alleged shooter knew each other well — but had been at odds for two years, even getting into physical altercations with each other.
Witnesses said the two men were in another heated argument before the shooting, Bedier said, but no one knew what it was about. That hasn’t stopped rumors from circulating on social media.
“One of the rumors was that brother Rafat was trying to come and worship and that the mosque security guard killed him to stop him from worshiping,” Bedier said. He called that rumor: “Absolutely false.”
Investigators told mosque leadership that Saeed wasn’t even planning to stop by that night. He was cutting through the parking lot to get home when he encountered the alleged shooter outside the mosque property, at E Sligh Avenue and Harney Road.
“For the first 30 minutes, even after the body was removed, we did not know the identity of the person who was shot,” Bedier said. “We assumed that this was an intruder threatening the mosque and something happened. We didn’t know that this was another Muslim.”
Saeed left behind a wife and two daughters, ages 12 and 15. A GoFundMe page was created to raise money for Saed, who worked as a truck driver and handy man. It brought in $38,300 in the first day.
“The month of Ramadan is the month of truth, and now is the time for truth,” Bedier told the congregation late Tuesday. “We’re urging calm, we’re urging patience and we’re urging people to allow law enforcement to do their job, continue their investigation to get to the truth. They have the tools and we don’t. They have the power and we don’t.”