As federal and local police agencies work to piece together a case against Elias Abuelazam in the 18 stabbing attacks — five of them fatal — that frightened residents across three states, a picture of the 6-foot-4 Israeli citizen known to acquaintances as "Big Boy" is beginning to surface.
Abuelazam, 33, waived his right to fight extradition Friday in an Atlanta court and is scheduled to be returned to Michigan, where he is charged with assault with intent to murder in one of the 18 attacks, most of which occurred in Michigan and targeted black victims.
Abuelazam grew up in a well-to-do Christian Arab family in the city of Ramle, Israel, where former neighbors and acquaintances described him as a shy, quiet geek who fell in with the wrong crowd. They said he eventually fell prey to drugs and "criminal elements," which led his single mother — his father is reported to have died when Elias was very young — to send him to the United States, where many relatives now live. He arrived sometime around 1995.
(In a visit back to Israel a few months ago, Abuelazam seems to have fallen into his old ways. Police confirmed acquaintances' reports that Abuelazam stabbed a friend with a screwdriver during a fight in Beit She'an. Investigators did not pursue a case because the victim chose not to press charges, police said.)
Neighbors said Abuelazam intended to study to be a pharmacist, but they did not know whether he actually completed his studies. It is known that he moved around the country, eventually settling in Leesburg, Va., a suburb of Washington. An apartment in Bradenton, Fla., where he has relatives, is listed as his formal address in court documents.
In July 2004, Abuelazam married Jessica Nimitz, a Texas teenager. They divorced in 2007; Nimitz has declined to comment on her ex-husband's arrest, saying she was still trying to absorb the news.
North Spring Behavioral Healthcare confirmed in a statement that Abuelazam worked at its residential treatment facility in Leesburg for young offenders, saying his employment ended in 2008.
In May, family connections led Abuelazam back to the Flint, Mich., area, one of the places he is known to have briefly lived in earlier. The Detroit Free Press reported that he lived in a house on Maryland Avenue in east Flint next door to relatives. Neighbors declined to comment.
That's the same month the string of stabbings began.
Acquaintances in Flint and Leesburg alike described Abuelazam as a large who was quiet and seemed self-controlled — unless something set off his temper.
Neighborhood kids in Leesburg told The Loudoun Times that Abuelazam was "respectful" and "nice" and would buy them ice cream, candy and sodas. He liked to hang around the neighborhood and chat with people on the street.
One of those neighbors was Jammie Lane, 44, who was found dead in his home on March 26, 2009. Police have not officially connected Abuelazam to Lane's death but say they are taking a closer look at the case since Abuelazam's arrest.
"We were all just neighbors," said Steve McCabe, 30, who lived nearby. "There were times when we — me, Jammie and him — we would stand out here and just talk. We would sit out and talk and laugh."
Echoing many people in Leesburg and Flint, McCabe told the Loudoun Times that Abuelazam "was really quiet and real nice. You wouldn't even know he was there."
Until he got angry.
Leesburg neighbors said there were times when, for no apparent reason, Abuelazam would fly into a rage with a "crazy look." On those occasions, they would be physically afraid of their 6-foot-4, 230-pound neighbor.
Neighbors related how Abuelazam would harshly kick his dogs when he thought they had misbehaved. Once, he accused Chris Theriot, 16, of trying to steal his pit bull terrier.
"When he was mad, he just had this rage in his face. It was a crazy look, like, 'Hey, if you don't get out of my way, there's going to be a problem,'" Chris told the Loudoun paper. "I was severely afraid of him. Physically afraid."
At the King Water Market in Flint, where Abuelazam worked for about a month before leaving Aug. 2, customers told The Flint Journal that the clerk they knew as Eli joked with the regulars and doggedly flirted with young ladies.
"He was a little standoffish, but he seemed OK," Steve Cornell, manager of the Family Dollar store next door, told the Journal.
Monica Butler, a customer, said Abuelazam was "flirty" — "he would always try to pick them up or get a number."
Abdulla Farah, his manager at the King Water Market, and others said Abuelazam was always friendly and respectful with African-American customers, complicating any easy conclusion that he may have specifically targeted black victims. Leesburg police said they assumed the attacker had a racial motive, but the Flint prosecutor has said there was no evidence to support that supposition.
All in all, Farah said, Abuelazam seemed to be "a good guy."
"All of my employees would not talk nothing about this guy. ... I never got no indication that [any] of my employees got any suspicions of this guy," Farah said.
At the same time, the "quiet" and "calm" Abuelazam was involved in numerous brushes with the law, with citations and minor arrests recorded in multiple locations.
Just last month, he was questioned by police twice on the same day — first in an incident in which he was charged with providing alcohol to a minor and later that day in a traffic stop — marking the second and third times police are known to have investigated him since the stabbings began. He was also arrested last week during a traffic stop and later released in Northern Virginia, a few hours before one of the stabbing victims was attacked.
Now it's up to the authorities — and eventually, perhaps, a jury — to sort through the contradictions.
"I do not believe these charges are true," Abuelazam's mother, Iyam al-Azzam, told Israel Radio. "Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."
But a former classmate painted a very different portrait for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.
"In recent years he experienced something that changed him entirely," the classmate said, adding that he would picks fights with "anyone who looked him in the eye."
When Abuelazam got angry, this acquaintance said, it would take three people to restrain him.