In the course of investigating a spate of anti-Semitic leafleting spanning 16 months, two detectives from the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force kept coming across pieces of a logo on the back of the nasty missives.
Sometimes they saw an X, or sometimes a Z.
The paper slips — which carried the message “Kill the Jews” scrawled with a black Sharpie pen — were sent to the forensics lab to be tested for DNA or fingerprints. But when they were returned to the task force, Detectives Faisal Khan and Al Provenzali were intrigued by four out of the more than 100 scraps found at 13 locations in Manhattan, 11 in Brooklyn and one each on Queens and the Bronx.
Eventually, it dawned on them that the scraps formed the logo of XYZ Luxury Sedan Service in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a company they knew well. Khan and Provenzali, who each had eight years of experience on the task force, had investigated two incidents of anti-Muslim hate mail against the company’s owner, Mohamad Mowad, which took place in 2002. The investigation ended with an arrest of a former employee in 2007.
“He played a key role in the investigation,” said the inspector.
Once the link to XYZ was established, the trail was easy to follow. Some of the torn pages were from a Taxi and Limousine Commission-issued trip sheet and contained pieces of handwritten information. Mowad was able to match the fragments with intact copies submitted to him and thereby identified a suspect, Dimitrious Apolonides, 37.
Mowad wanted to fire the driver, who had 17 years with the company, as soon as he was tied to the crime, but the detectives asked him not to so they could continue the investigation. “They wanted us to keep it quiet for a while,” Mowad told The Jewish Week.
“It made no sense,” said the Egyptian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen 35 years ago. “[Apolonides] is very close friends with my vice president, who is Jewish and the head of sales who is an Israeli Jew. So I was shocked that he would do this stupid thing.”
The next step was to check data from the GPS system installed in all of XYZ’s cars that records their travel history. Cross-checking that history with the dates and locations of the leafleting incidents confirmed that Apolonides’ car was in those areas at the same time, said Osgood.
The suspect’s name then went to the NYPD’s intelligence unit for an extensive background check for ties to hate or terrorist organizations. “That came back all clean,” said Osgood. A native U.S. citizen, Apolonides, who had no criminal record, had only traveled abroad once, to Greece, 10 years ago. “It would be different if he was going to Saudi Arabia or Yemen multiple times,” said the inspector.
Still, for the next three months the detectives sporadically followed and observed the suspect. A court order was not necessary as long as they tailed him in public places. The surveillance was uneventful, but the evidence they had was enough to eventually bring the cabbie in for questioning, at which time, Osgood said, Apolonides admitted to scattering the hateful messages as many as 100 times out the window of his car.
The NYPD shared its information with representatives of police departments where similar incidents took place, including Nassau and Rockland County, where similar incidents took place, and they all concluded they had their man. “There’s no doubt it’s the same person,” said Osgood. The arrest was made on July 15.
Apolonides was charged with only one incident, though. It took place on May 13 of this year, on East 65th Street in Manhattan, outside the headquarters of the Jewish Guild for the Blind. That will allow prosecutors to pursue a charge of aggravated harassment as a hate crime, a misdemeanor, on the assumption that he deliberately targeted the institution because of religion, a violation of New York State’s 2000 Hate Crimes Act.
The other incidents are not illegal because they could not be considered incitement to cause harm. “For the most part it’s an act that’s protected under the First Amendment,” said Osgood.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s hate crimes prosecution unit is still looking into the case, but a spokesperson declined to comment.
If convicted, Apolonides faces one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. He has not yet entered a plea in the case.
Apolonides has insisted he has nothing against Jews and told police he doesn’t know why he dropped the fliers.
The Anti-Defamation League is less convinced of his ambiguity.
“While the motive for this anti-Semitic leafleting spree remains unclear, there can be no doubt that this was a crime motivated by hate, and that the intent here was to spread fear through the New York City metropolitan area,” said Jeffrey M. Parker and Ron Meier of the ADL’s New York Region in a statement.
Osgood said the task force’s top priority in catching the person responsible for the fliers was to determine the threat level. “Our concern was he would take it to the next, higher level,” he said.
But asked if Apolonides was dangerous, Osgood said, “I would have to say no if I’m going to be honest with you. Doing this for eight years, there’s never been a case like this. What human being does this?
“Our goal was to find him and if he’s not a criminal, at least identify him and tell him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to stop this. This is troublesome to many people.’ ”
Mowad said Apolonides, whose father also worked for the company, has been fired from XYZ because he “used our voucher for an illegal issue and involved us. He is out of here.”
Mowad said he was disturbed by the incident. “It makes me scared. If a quiet person like that who has a family and a kid can do this, I am afraid of my neighbor.”
If Apolonides is convicted, Mowad has a recommendation for the judge: “His punishment should be probation, where he visits every day the Holocaust Museum to see by his own eye how much people suffer for what they believe, and not for what they did.”