Palestinian-American boy killed and his mother injured after landlord stabs them because they were Muslim, authorities say

CNN — A Chicago-area landlord was arrested and charged with murder and hate crimes after authorities said he stabbed and killed a 6-year-old boy and seriously wounded his mother, allegedly because the tenants are Muslim.

Joseph M. Czuba, 71, was charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of a hate crime and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, the Will County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office said in a news release. The US Justice Department has also opened a federal hate crime investigation into the attack, US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Sunday.

The sheriff’s office said Czuba did not make a statement to detectives but investigators determined the victims were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis.”

The family is Palestinian and “came to America seeking what we all seek—a refuge to live, learn, and pray in peace,” according to the White House.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden said they were “shocked and sickened” over the attack and offered their condolences to the family in a statement released by the White House Sunday.

Authorities were called to the residence in unincorporated Plainfield Township, roughly 40 miles southwest of Chicago, shortly before noon Saturday after a woman called 911 saying her landlord had attacked her, according to the sheriff’s office.

When deputies arrived, they found Czuba sitting on the ground, near the home’s driveway, the release said. The two victims were found in a bedroom, each with “multiple stab wounds,” and were taken to the hospital, according to the release.

The boy was stabbed 26 times and succumbed to his injuries, the sheriff’s office said.

The 32-year-old woman, who had more than a dozen stab wounds, is recovering at the hospital and is expected to survive, the office said.

Palestinian-American boy killed and his mother injured after landlord stabs them because they were Muslim, authorities say

The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) identified the victims in a news release as Hanaan Shahin, and her son, Wadea Al-Fayoume.

The Bidens said the “horrific act of hate has no place in America, and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are.”

“As Americans, we must come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred,” the statement from the White House read. “I have said repeatedly that I will not be silent in the face of hate. We must be unequivocal. There is no place in America for hate against anyone.”

The family had lived on the house’s ground floor for two years without “previous notable issues” with Czuba, CAIR said.

But in texts to the boy’s father from the hospital after the attack, Shahin said the landlord “knocked on their door, and when she opened, he tried to choke her and proceeded to attack her with a knife, yelling, ‘you Muslims must die,’” according to the CAIR statement.

The attorney general said the Justice Department “will use every legal authority at our disposal to bring to justice those who perpetrate illegal acts of hate.”

“This incident cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence,” Garland said. “The Department of Justice is focused on protecting the safety and the civil rights of every person in this country.”

After Wadea’s killing, the Illinois State Police urged vigilance Sunday but assured residents that, “At this time, there is no actionable intelligence regarding any credible mass threats in Illinois.”

On Saturday, Israel’s military said its forces are readying for the next stages of the war in response to the unprecedented October 7 attacks by the Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza. At least 1,400 people were killed during Hamas’ rampage, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told CNN on Sunday.

In response, Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes that have killed more than 2,600 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry. And conditions there have deteriorated into a “complete catastrophe,” aid workers say, as tens of thousands of Palestinians try to flee south.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said in a statement, “To take a six year old child’s life in the name of bigotry is nothing short of evil.”

“Every single Illinoisan – including our Muslim, Jewish and Palestinian neighbors – deserves to live free from the threat of such evil,” the governor said. “Today, MK and I join our Muslim and Palestinian brothers and sisters in mourning this tragic loss and praying for the recovery of Wadea’s mother.”

“May Wadea Al-Fayoume’s memory be a blessing.”

A child who had just celebrated his birthday

Wadea had celebrated his birthday shortly before his death, Ahmed Rehab, CAIR-Chicago’s executive director, said in a news conference Sunday.

“He was a 6-year-old boy, he loved everything,” Rehab said of the child, recalling how Wadea’s father had described him.

“He loved everybody, he loved his toys, he loved anything with a ball, basketball, soccer, he loved to color, he loved to swing around, he loved his parents, he loved his family and his friends, he loved life and he was looking forward to a long, healthy, prosperous life,” he added during the news conference.

“He has no clue about these larger issues happening in the world but he was made to pay for it,” Rehab added.

Wadea’s mother and father had moved to the United States 12 and nine years ago, respectively, and their son was born here, Rehab added. They were from a village in the West Bank, he said.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, CAIR National wrote they were “shocked and disturbed” to hear of the boy’s death, and said, “The Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-Palestinian racism being spread by politicians, media outlets, and social media platforms must stop.”

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it “strongly condemns the heinous act of racism and hatred that led to the death of a 6-year-old Palestinian child and the serious injury of his mother.”

“The ministry also condemns the incitement campaigns, attacks, racist statements, and provocative positions that have been directed against Palestinian citizens and several Palestinian embassies and ambassadors in some countries,” it said in a statement, adding that it “calls on all nations to confront these actions and to hold their promoters and those behind them accountable.”

Czuba was transported to the Will County Adult Detention Facility and is awaiting his initial court appearance, according to the sheriff’s office. It is unclear if he has an attorney.