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Police arrest man in connection with Jamaica firebombings

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (l.), Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Imam Maan Al-Sahlani and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly meet to discuss the attack at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center. Photo by Christina Santucci
Crime scene tape is wrapped around a home on 107th Avenue. Photo by Ellis Kaplan
TimesLedger Newspapers

Police said Tuesday evening they have arrested a Jamaica man in connection with the string of firebombings in southeast Queens on New Year’s Day that galvanized the city’s religious community and elected officials to decry hate crimes.

The unidentified suspect was awaiting to be charged by investigators following a day of questioning at the 103rd Precinct about his alleged involvement in the four arsons at several locations in Jamaica, including the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, the largest Shiite mosque in the state, police said.

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly was joined by the mayor, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and religious leaders of various denominations at a news conference at the Van Wyck Expressway place of worship and said the fires were being investigated as a possible hate crimes.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the suspect will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

“We don’t know what the nature was, but here in New York City, we don’t tolerate violence and we don’t tolerate bigotry,” he said.

The fires severely damaged all of the buildings but did not injure anyone, started around 8 p.m. and lasted for more than two hours, police said. The suspect, described as a black man being between 25 and 30 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall and 200 pounds, first threw a Molotov cocktail at a deli at 179th Street and Hillside Avenue, police said.

Last week, the owner of the deli kicked out a customer who was trying to steal milk and a Frappuccino from the store, according to the commissioner. Investigators strongly believe the ejected customer is the firebombing suspect, according to the commissioner.

“He said words to [the owner to] the effect that we’re going to get back to you,” Kelly said.

The suspect then threw another Molotov cocktail at a private residence at 146th Street and 107th Avenue before heading to the mosque, where 80 people were worshiping, and threw two more firebombs at its front entrance, police said.

Another private residence at 170th Street and 88th Avenue was hit with a Molotov cocktail later in the night, but investigators were able to obtain surveillance videos from the house, according to the NYPD.

The last location had a Hindu worship temple in the backyard, but it was not known if the fugitive knew about the small place of worship before throwing the explosive device, according to a police source.

A fifth residence in Elmont, L.I., was also hit with a Molotov cocktail later in the night by the same suspect, the commissioner said.

Kelly said the suspect was wearing a black jacket and baseball cap and was seen getting away from the locations in a light-colored sedan with Virginia plates. The person of interest who was questioned and arrested was linked to the vehicle, according to the commissioner.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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