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L.A. synagogue suspect researched deadly terrorist attack in N.Y., detective says

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Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, the suspect in a hate crime involving a vehicle attack at a Hancock Park synagogue, makes his first appearance in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom in November 2018.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The Seattle man accused of trying to run over two Jewish men outside a Los Angeles synagogue last year in what prosecutors allege was a hate-fueled attack had previously researched a New York City terror act in which a vehicle was used to kill pedestrians, a detective testified in court Wednesday.

Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, 33, had searched online for information about a November 2017 terrorist attack that left eight people dead in lower Manhattan less than a day before he barreled his car toward two Jewish men outside Congregation Bais Yehuda late last year, according to Los Angeles Police Det. Easley De Larkin, who was testifying at a preliminary hearing in Mohamed’s case.

On Nov. 23, police said, Mohamed drove into an intersection near the synagogue as a number of people were leaving a Friday night service. He began to curse at the congregants and made anti-Semitic remarks while driving past, before attempting to run them down near La Brea and Oakwood avenues, police said.

The two men escaped unharmed. Mohamed tried to flee but was arrested after crashing his car a short time later.

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Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Deborah S. Brazil ordered Mohamed to stand trial on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon with hate crime allegations during the 90-minute hearing. Prosecutors have contended he specifically targeted Jewish victims.

Mohamed is acting as his own attorney. Relatives who were in the courtroom left without commenting Wednesday. He has pleaded not guilty, and his family previously provided The Times with medical records showing he suffered from schizophrenia. They denied he held any ill will toward the Jewish community.

Police had initially expressed concern about the similarities between the incident outside the synagogue and other terrorist attacks around the globe that have involved the use of vehicles to ram pedestrians. A search of Mohamed’s cellphone revealed he had reviewed information about the Manhattan attack — in which a 29-year-old man drove a rental vehicle onto a riverfront bike path in New York City, killing eight people and injuring a dozen more — less than 24 hours before he arrived outside the Hancock Park synagogue, De Larkin said.

De Larkin testified that Mohamed had also searched for information about the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prior to the incident. An “anti-Semitic pamphlet” that De Larkin described as “involving Jews and the entertainment industry and something needing to be done about it” was also found during a search of Mohamed’s Seattle residence, De Larkin said.

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The missive, titled “A Straight Look at the Jewish Lobby,” was written by Mark Weber, who has been described as a Holocaust denier by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mohamed had tried to buy a firearm twice in Washington several years ago but was denied by gun shop owners who believed he was behaving strangely, De Larkin testified. He had driven to California from Seattle in a stolen car a month before the attack outside Congregation Bais Yehuda, but he was arrested in Citrus Heights in Sacramento County, De Larkin said. Charges were not filed in that incident.

Police recovered a copy of the Koran and a 13-inch-long “buck knife” in Mohamed’s car after the November 2018 incident, according to De Larkin, who noted the similarities between that discovery and other vehicle attacks in which suspects have exited a crashed car and used a firearm or blade to attack injured victims.

De Larkin was the only witness called during Wednesday’s hearing. Dressed in a yellow jumper and speaking in a low voice, Mohamed asked a series of seemingly disconnected questions on cross-examination. He prodded De Larkin about his search of the car and asked why no one searched his wallet, before moving onto an unrelated point. Twice, Mohamed asked De Larkin about a prior interview when the detective first told Mohamed he could face attempted murder charges, but he did not follow up on the point.

Despite his history of mental illness, Mohamed was found competent to stand trial in January. He fired his attorney a short time later.

Mohamed’s relatives said last year he was in dire need of mental health treatment, not a trial.

“He was recently seeking treatment in King County [in Washington] through a program designed to provide behavioral health services to individuals with the most severe level of mental health conditions,” the family said in a statement in November. “However, he did not receive the intensive medical care he needed.”

Mohamed is a U.S. citizen who entered the country as a refugee in the early 1990s with his family as they fled a civil war in Somalia, a relative told The Times last year. The relative spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their privacy.

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Mohamed had been held at mental health facilities in the Seattle area at least twice since 2016, according to records provided to The Times.

“Mohamed’s mental illness renders him unpredictable and unstable, however, he has never expressed particular hatred toward Jews, or any other group of people or minority,” the family statement read.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos, who is prosecuting the case, said Mohamed’s mental health will be continually evaluated as the case progresses. Mohamed is being held in lieu of $1-million bail and is due back in court April 17.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.


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