Cops eyeing a family member in ‘dastardly’ crime

Detectives are investigating whether a family member fatally shot a widely respected Newark imam, three law enforcement sources told NBC News, a killing that stunned the city and sparked fears of a hate crime.

Imam Hassan Sharif, 52, was in his car outside the Masjid Muhammad mosque on Jan. 3 when he was shot multiple times at about 6:15 a.m. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital at 2:20 p.m., authorities said.

The law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation, said the probe was still in its preliminary stages. They provided no details about the family member’s potential motive.

Investigators were seeking to determine whether the relative is the person who was captured on surveillance video riding away from the scene on a bicycle, one of the sources said.

Imam Hassan Sharif at Masjid Muhammed-Newark
Imam Hassan Sharif at Masjid Muhammed-Newark in 2023.Masjid Muhammad-Newark / Anadolu via Getty Images file

The killing prompted an outpouring of tributes from members of the mosque, community activists, religious leaders and government officials, including Gov. Phil Murphy. Sharif was remembered as a pillar of the community who worked to lift people out of poverty and reduce the city’s high rate of violent crime.

“He was a community advocate who protested against gun violence continuously,” Fritz Fragé, Newark’s public safety director, told reporters after the shooting. “He supported the city in all of his efforts in helping to keep our city safe. It is with deep loss that the city will mourn his absence.”

“Our hearts are broken,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement.

Essex County Crime Stoppers is offering a $25,000 reward for anyone with information about the shooting. In the hours after the attack, the authorities said the motive was unclear, but it did not appear to be motivated by bias.

“While I have indicated that this investigation is at the very early stages, the impact on the community of this sort of particularly dastardly crime cannot be understated,” acting Essex County prosecutor Theodore Stephens said.

The fatal shooting came almost five months after a gunman confronted Sharif outside the mosque at around the same time of day.

In August, Sharif was exiting his car for morning prayers when a man put a gun to his head, the imam wrote on Facebook. Sharif tussled with the gunman and gained control of the weapon. As the man ran off, Sharif tried to open fire but the gun jammed.

“I will not be intimidated by anyone of you punks who thought it was ok to come up with this plan or to put the idea in this young man’s mind,” Sharif said in the Facebook post.

A married father and avid boxer, Sharif had also worked as a transportation security officer at Newark Liberty International Airport since 2006.

This was not the first time a leader of the mosque was killed.

In 1973, James Shabazz, the leader of what was then known as Temple No. 25 and a close aide to Malcom X, was shot outside his home in Newark. The shooters were never caught.

That killing was believed to have been carried out by members of a splinter group who had grown disillusioned with the leadership of Shabazz.