Aug. 12, 2010 -- An Israeli-Arab arrested for attempted murder as he was waiting to board a flight to Israel is believed to be the serial killer who stabbed 18 men -- murdering five of them -- in recent months, police said today.
Elias Abuelazam, 33, was apprehended Wednesday night at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport as he waited for his flight to leave the country, officials said. He was tracked to the airport after investigators followed a new lead that originated in Michigan.
"The person that we believe is responsible is off the street," Leesburg, Va., Police Chief Joseph Price said today.
Serial Killer Suspect Caught, Released, Caught, Released, Caught Again
Though he finally was charged, the airport arrest was not the first time police stopped Abuelazam during the stabbing spree. At least twice in recent weeks, police in Michigan and Virginia nabbed him, with police in Virginia even spotting possible murder weapons.
In both cases, the authorities let him go, apparently failing to peg him as a suspect in the stabbings.
In one incident, Abuelazam was charged with providing alcohol to a minor on the evening of July 29 in Genesee County, Mich., according to court records on file in the 67th District Court there.
The citation came the same day as an early morning attack in the area now considered part of the stabbing spree.
Abuelazam was supposed to appear in a Mount Morris, Mich., court room on the charge on Aug. 4, but he failed to show up. The 67th District Court still has Abuelazam's Florida driver's license, which he surrendered at the time of his citation in lieu of posting bond, according to the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office.
In another incident, last week, Abuelazam was picked up in Arlington, Va., for failing to stop at a stop sign, Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton said.
During a background check, police discovered he had an oustanding warrant for misdemeanor assault. While he was booked and placed in a holding cell, police impounded his car. During a search, police found a knife in the driver's side door and a hammer, two weapons victims of the attacks had described.
But at that point, there had been no known attacks in Virginia and Abuelazam was released and the car was returned to him, Leyton said.
"The Arlington police certainly had no idea" about the prior attacks, Leyton said.
Abuelazam finally was caught for good as he was trying to board a Delta flight bound for Tel Aviv, Israel, federal officials said. He was waiting in the gate area to board when the Transportation Security Administration alerted Delta to hold the plane while authorities got in place.
Airport employees then paged Abuelazam over the intercom and, when he came to the desk, he was taken into custody without incident, an Atlanta Police Department report said.
Abuelazam has been charged one count of assault with intent to murder in connection with a July 27 attack in Flint, Mich. Though that charge can carry a life sentence, further charges are expected as the investigation continues, Leyton said.
Police believe Abuelazam may be behind 18 knife attacks beginning in May that spanned Michigan, Virginia and Ohio. Five of the victims died from their wounds -- David Motley, 31, Emmanuel A. Muhammad, 59, Darwin Marshall, 43, and Arnold R. Minor, 49, all of Flint, and Frank Kellybrew, 60, of Flint Township, Mich., according to The Associated Press.
The serial stabber was blamed for as many as 20 attacks at one point, but police determined two of the reported assaults were not likely linked to the serial stabber.
Many of the Serial Stabbings Victimized Black Men
Most of the stabbing victims were black men, but Leyton declined to say the attacks were racially motivated.
"We don't have a motive yet but, as you know, many times the motive doesn't appear until later in the investigation," Leyton said. "Jury instructions don't require us necessarily to have a motive."
Leyton added that a police hotline on the case received more than 500 tips, including the one that sent police looking for Abuelazam.
Abuelazam, who was born in Israel and is of Arab descent, was living in the U.S. legally and has been linked to cities across the country.
Police believe he came to Michigan in May, just days before the attacks began.
"He was a good guy. He was a friendly guy. He was a nice guy," Abuelazam's one-time boss, Abdullah Farah, said today. "He said he was leaving to see some relatives and he never came back."
Investigators believe Abuelazam had an uncle in the Flint, Mich., area as well as a sister in Virginia, Leyton said. He had lived in Leesburg, where he worked at a mental health clinic before traveling to Michigan.
Wendy Brooks told ABC News that she worked with Abuelazam at the Piedmont Behavioral Health Center in Leesburg for several years until 2002 when they both left the facility. She said it was a very stressful job where they frequently had to subdue mentally unstable and violent teenagers, and he was a "gentle giant" whose behavior was marked by patience and restraint.
"He seemed to always treat the kids nicely, followed the rules," Brooks said. "From what I saw, he was never too aggressive. ... I think he was smart. He wasn't quick to react."
At times, she would even seek out Abuelazam "to just kind of talk about a situation. He would sit there and take the time to do it."
Brooks was particularly surprised to find that most of his alleged victims were black.
"It's crazy. I never would've imagined anything like that. I'm a young black female," she said, adding that she gave him a ride home once.
Prior to the attacks, Auelazam had several run-ins with the law including several traffic violations, a check fraud charge and unlawful possession of a weapon. In 2008 he was arrested and held for obstruction of justice. He spent at least one month in jail for a fraud conviction in California.
Abuelazam's ex-wife, who lives in Texas, told The Detroit News she, too, was shocked by the arrest, but hadn't spoken to her ex-husband for a while.
Though the attacks took place from late May through early August, Leyton said law enforcement acted quickly.
"The first two crimes were homicides. The first one was in May and then about a month later was the second one. For those first two, we had absolutely no statement, no suspect, no evidence, no witness. So we had nothing right there," he said. "When we began to see the pattern emerge in late July, that's when everybody said 'This is what we have.'"
Leyton said if Abuelazam waives extradition he could be returned to Michigan as soon as Friday, but could also face charges in other states.
Victims of Serial Stabber Describe Similarities
One of the victims, Richard Booker, 49, recently was released from a Flint hospital where he has been for the last three weeks after being stabbed. He told ABC News that he has 68 staples throughout his back and belly and has slash wounds on his arms because he tried to prevent the man from "cutting off his face."
"I've never hurt so much in my life, never come so close to death," Booker told ABCNews. "I was about dead."
Booker, who is white, dismisses the notion that the attacks are racially motivated.
"I'm obviously not black. The guy's just a stone cold killer," Booker said.
Booker was stabbed five times, including a roughly 12-inch-long vertical slash from below his belly button all the way up his chest. He lost eight pints of blood from his wounds.
Antwoine Marshall, who was attacked two weeks ago, described a similar experience and similar wounds. He told ABC News he was stabbed six times in his stomach and chest.
"It's a very, very violent type of crime," Leyton told "Good Morning America" Wednesday. "Maybe he's enjoying watching them suffer, maybe he's enjoying watching them wriggle around in pain. But we really don't know what he's thinking, and we won't until we bring him in and talk to him."
More than 450 tips flooded in to authorities in Flint, where 16 of the attacks and all of the fatalities have occurred, according to Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Gene Kapp. Leesburg and Toledo police have also received tips.
The link between the attacks, which began in May, was not apparent until recently.
"There's similarities in many things. The weapon used, the suspect, the area," Kapp said Wednesday. "Those similarities cannot be ignored."
Victims have told police the crimes occurred when they were alone, and the suspect approached them asking for directions or help with his car. Then, he stabbed them with an edged weapon, police say.
Booker's story matched this one. He said the man asked him for help opening the hood of his SUV.
The suspect is a white male in his 20s or 30s who stands roughly 5 feet 11 inches tall to 6 feet 2 inches tall, and weighs approximately 180 to 210 pounds. He frequently wears a baseball cap during the attacks, according to police.
Capp said the authorities formed a task force made up of all the law enforcement agencies in Michigan's Genesee County, including the Flint Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the FBI.
Police say the suspect has been seen driving a dark green Chevy Blazer SUV with a model year ranging from 1995-2005 with rust and dents on the hood. Leesburg police released a video on Tuesday that shows a vehicle matching that description driving through a parking lot allegedly stalking one of his victims.
ABC News' Michael S. James, Jason Ryan, Diane Boozer, Steve Osunsami and Lisa Stark contributed to this report.