‘He looked like a bum’: cop who roused sleeping vagrant found himself facing America’s most wanted

Suspected New York bomber Ahmad Rahami opened fire on the officer who found him asleep in the doorway of a bar

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, 10:11pm

The New Jersey police officer was responding to a call about a hoodied vagrant curled up asleep in a bar doorway.

But when the officer roused the man, the officer quickly recognised the bearded face of perhaps the most wanted man in America.

Ahmad Khan Rahami — identified in an FBI bulletin just hours earlier as a man wanted in the weekend bombings in New York City and New Jersey — pulled a gun, shot the officer and triggered a running gun battle in the street that ended with Rahami wounded and in custody Monday, authorities said.

A bloodied Rahami was loaded into the back of an ambulance, just 50 hours after the first blast that started it all.

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Rahami, 28, a naturalised US citizen from Afghanistan who lived with his Muslim family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to the leg as authorities began drawing up charges in a case that spread fear across the New York area and revived anxiety about homegrown terrorism.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said officials have every reason to believe the series of bombings “was an act of terror,” though investigators said Rahami’s exact motive isn’t yet clear.

With Rahami’s arrest, officials said they have no indication there are more bombs or suspects to find, though they cautioned that they are still investigating.

Still, after a whirlwind investigation that put Rahami in custody in just two days’ time, “I’m a lot happier today than I was yesterday,” New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

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The probe started when a pipe bomb blew up Saturday morning in Seaside Park, New Jersey, before a charity race to benefit Marines. No one was injured. Then a shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bomb similar to those used in the Boston Marathon attack exploded Saturday night in New York’s Chelsea section, wounding 29 people, none seriously. An unexploded pressure-cooker bomb was found blocks away.

Late Sunday night, five explosive devices were discovered in a trash can at an Elizabeth, New Jersey, train station. Investigators said they are still gathering evidence and have not publicly tied Rahami to those devices.

Late Monday, a hospitalised Rahami was charged in New Jersey with five counts of attempted murder of police officers in connection with the shootout and was held on US$5.2 million bail. Federal prosecutors said they were still weighing charges over the bombings.

William Sweeney Jr, the FBI’s assistant director in New York, said there were no indications Rahami was on law enforcement’s radar at the time of the bombings.

Authorities zeroed in on him as the potential bomber after a fingerprint and DNA lifted from one of the New York sites and “clear as day” surveillance video from the bombing scene helped identify him, according to three law enforcement who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Five people were pulled over Sunday night in a vehicle associated with Rahami but were questioned and released, Sweeney said, declining to say whether they might later face charges. The law enforcement officials said at least one of Rahami’s relatives was in the car, which appeared headed toward Kennedy Airport in New York after coming from New Jersey.

Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said the break in the case came late Monday morning, when a bar owner reported someone asleep in his doorway.

Jack Mazza, co-manager of nearby VCMR Truck Services, said the bar owner came over exclaiming about the sleeping man, and Mazza walked over to see a man curled up with a sweatshirt hood pulled over his head in the rain.

“He looked like a bum,” Mazza said.

After an officer arrived and recognised Rahami, Rahami shot the officer, who was saved by his bulletproof vest, authorities said. More officers joined in a gun battle that spilled into the street.

Another police officer was grazed by a bullet. Authorities said neither officer’s injuries were life-threatening.

Peter Bilinskas said he was standing by his desk at his Linden bowling-supply shop when he heard what sounded like gunfire and saw a man walking down the street with a gun in his hand.

As a police car pulled up at the traffic light in front of the shop, the man fired about six shots at the cruiser, then continued down the street with police following him, Bilinskas said.