NEW YORK (AP) — Detectives on Monday searched for a balding, middle-aged man seen wearing an overcoat and carrying a duffel bag after a shopkeeper was shot dead as investigators tried to figure out whether a violent armed robber or a serial killer had slain three Middle Eastern business owners in the past four months.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said nothing was being ruled out just yet in the mysterious Brooklyn killings of shopkeepers of Middle Eastern descent. The most recent killing happened Friday afternoon when Rahmatollah Vahidipour, a Jewish man from Iran, was shot three times in the head and chest at his store, the She She Boutique.
"The possibility of a bias motive here is something that can't be excluded," Kelly said.
After the latest killing, detectives discovered the same gun was used in the fatal shootings of two other shopkeepers when ballistics matched the .22-caliber gun shell casings on all three. On July 6, Mohamed Gebeli, 65, an Egyptian immigrant and a Muslim, was found shot in the back of his shop, Valentino Fashion Inc. On Aug. 6, Isaac Kadare, 59, also Egyptian but Jewish, was shot in the head in his store, Amazing 99 Cent Deal.
There were other similarities, authorities said: The bodies were all partially obscured by clothing or, in one case, a box. The shops all lacked surveillance cameras, and the owners were alone in the store. The locations of the shops form a triangle and are each about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) apart, with addresses that contain the number eight. Money was taken from everyone but Vahidipour, 78, who had $171 in his pocket.
"We're trying to put it together. We're talking to the FBI; we're doing an all-out effort to solve these murders," Kelly said.
The FBI released a statement Monday night saying the NYPD had formally requested the agency's help.
Supervisory Special Agent Martin Feely of the FBI's New York office said, "The FBI will be providing assistance, to include expertise from the Behavioral Analysis Unit."
He said the NYPD would remain the lead investigative agency.
A day earlier, police released photos of four people — including the man with the bag — who might have witnessed the most recent shooting. They spoke to two of them — a woman and a man seen running in surveillance footage — and ruled them out. Apparently the woman had stolen perfume from the man, a street vendor, police said.
Detectives are combing through nearby security footage to search for any shreds of evidence.
Kelly said it's reasonable to think the shooter had canvassed the area to find locations where no cameras existed.
"Here you have three stores where the proprietor is there by himself, no cameras in any of these," he said. "You'd have to speculate that some sort of reconnaissance was going on before the murders took place."
Kelly said they would like the man in the overcoat to come forward and identify himself. The commissioner said no one has been named a suspect and no arrests had been made.
The killings chilled local shopkeepers.
"Pretty nerve-wracking that a serial killer is on the loose in Brooklyn. You know it's the third one with the same gun," said Howard Prince, the manager of a business near the She She Boutique. Prince said police were stressing that no one should work alone.
"I mean that's not the part the concerns me," he said. "The part that concerns me is you take somebody's life that's 78 years old for no reason."
Associated Press Television reporter Ted Shaffrey contributed to this report.