Muslim convert pleads not guilty to murder of soldier

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Associated Press Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (AP) — A Muslim convert who already was under federal investigation pleaded not guilty Tuesday in what police called a likely “political and religious” attack that killed a young soldier at a military recruiting center.

Abdulhakim Muhammad, 23, was charged in Monday’s death of Pvt. William Long, 23, of Conway outside an Army-Navy Career Center. He pleaded not guilty to a capital murder charge and was ordered held without bail.

A prosecutor said Muhammad admitted shooting Long and another soldier “because of what they had done to Muslims in the past.”

An FBI-led joint terrorism task force based in the southern United States has been investigating Muhammad since he returned to the United States from Yemen, a law enforcement official said. The suspect had been arrested and jailed in Yemen at some point for using a Somali passport, the official said. The time of that arrest was not immediately clear.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to discuss the investigation.

An FBI spokesman did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris said no decision has been made on whether to pursue federal charges against Muhammad. “We’re consulting with a lot of people on what, if any, charges can be filed against him,” Harris said.

Both Arkansas and federal court systems permit executions for capital crimes.

Long and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, 18, had recently completed basic training and had never seen combat. Ezeagwula was hospitalized in stable condition.

Police Chief Stuart Thomas said Muhammad, previously known as Carlos Bledsoe, was a convert to Islam and was not part of any broader scheme to attack the American military.

Interviews with police show he “probably had political and religious motives for the attack,” the chief said.

“We believe that it’s associated with his disagreement over the military operations,” Thomas said.

Police Sgt. Cassandra Davis said Tuesday it wasn’t known when Muhammad began planning the attack.

Deputy Prosecutor Scott Duncan said Muhammad told investigators that “he would have killed more soldiers had they been in the parking lot.” Long and Ezeagwula were targeted as they stood outside the recruiting center smoking cigarettes.

Muhammad did not speak during the brief hearing before Judge Alice Lightle.

John Rehrauer, spokesman for the Pulaski County jail, said the department was handling Muhammad as it does other high-profile cases.

“He is in some protective custody, in a higher-security unit in a cell by himself,” Rehrauer said.

He said he didn’t know of any threats against Muhammad and said jailers did not believe he was in any greater danger than previous high-profile people handled at the prison.

The two soldiers had recently completed basic training and had volunteered for a program to recruit others to the military, said Lt. Col. Thomas F. Artis of the Oklahoma City Recruiting Battalion, which oversees the Little Rock office.

“They can show the example: ‘Here’s where I was, and here is where I am,’” Artis said.

A police report said Muhammad told investigators he observed two soldiers in uniform, drove up to the recruiting center and began shooting.

“He saw them standing there and drove up and shot them,” Lt. Terry Hastings told The Associated Press. “That’s what he said.”

Police arrested Muhammad along a highway moments after the shootings. Police said an assault rifle and other weapons were found in his vehicle.

In addition to the capital murder count, Muhammad is accused of committing 16 counts of a terroristic act. Thomas said most additional counts resulted from the gunfire occurring near other people.

The suspect’s father, Melvin Bledsoe, hung up on a reporter who called about his son’s arrest Monday night.