Teen to be tried for murder in mother’s death

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — A teenager will stand trial for first-degree murder in the Aug. 21 slaying of his mother, whose death was initially viewed as an accidental fall from a window of a Farmington Hills mansion.

Farmington 47th District Judge Marla Parker heard four hours of testimony and ruled there is probable cause for Muhammad Altantawi, 16, to be bound over to Oakland Circuit Court for trial on a premeditated murder charge in the death of Nada Huranieh, a physical fitness trainer.

Altantawi was returned to Oakland County Children’s Village, where he is held without bond. He has been charged as an adult in the case, which will go before Oakland Circuit Judge Martha Anderson.

His attorneys, Mark Kramer and Shannon Smith, left the court immediately after Parker’s decision. In cross examination, they attempted to show detectives conducted a narrow investigation into the death and that other suspects remain. Assistant prosecuting attorney John Skrzynski declined comment.

Huranieh’s lifeless body was found lying on a patio below a second-floor window of the family’s home by a 14-year-old daughter.

The death was initially thought to be an accident but Dr. Ruben Ortiz-Reyes, a deputy Oakland County medical examiner, testified Huranieh, 35, died from suffocation and blunt force trauma to the side of her head.

He said her injuries were not consistent with the fall and that she died prior to falling or being pushed out of the window. Ortiz-Reyes said “something soft, maybe a pillow or blanket” was used to smother the woman.

Injuries to her head came prior to her death, likely when she was being suffocated, he said. It would not have been fast.

“A person will be unconscious within a few seconds but it takes two to four minutes to suffocate someone,” Otiz-Reyes testified.

Farmington Hills Detective Sgt. Richard Wehby testified Friday that several “odd events” around the house raised questions, including the position of the body on the ground, which was on her back with her head closer to the wall than her feet – opposite to what would be expected if someone fell forward.

And considering the fall and impact, there was a lack of blood beneath Huranieh’s body – likely because the heart had stopped pumping several minutes before, Wehby and the medical examiner testified.

Altantawi repeatedly denied to investigators that he knew anything about the accident before hearing his sister screaming for help, Wehby testified.

But investigators found an outdoor home camera surveillance system – which the family said was not operating – and recovered video footage that showed a figure struggling with something large and two arms dangling out the window before a body was “flipped” out and seen falling to the ground, Wehby testified.

Parker was shown the video Friday on a laptop computer.

While no one’s face can apparently be seen on the video before the fall, it showed lights going on and off and shadows cast from windows, convincing investigators someone else was moving about the house before and after the death, including in the room where the body went out the window.

At one point, Altantawi can be seen kneeling by the body on taking on his cellphone to a dispatcher and making “half-hearted” and “lame” resuscitation efforts with one arm until an officer shows up, Wehby testified.

After detectives later confronted Altantawi about the video and their suspicions, he finally changed his story to explain he had been in the room and had helped his mother as she was cleaning a window and watched her fall, the detective said.

“He said he had taken her a spray cleaning bottle found on the ladder, which she told him seemed unsteady,” said Wehby. “… He said he saw her leaning backward on the ladder out the window and slipping or tripped …”

Altantawi said he stared at his mother’s body lying below but instead of seeing if he could help her, “wanted to believe it didn’t happen” so he instead took a shower and went back to bed until he heard his sister’s cries, the detective testified.

A bath mat, possibly used to suffocate Huranieh, was found inside a washing machine, which had stopped mid-cycle, Wehby said.

On a second visit and inspection of the washing machine, the mat – which is believed to have come from the bathroom of her master bedroom – had been removed and was found soaking wet inside a plastic bag under dirty clothes in a hamper, the detective testified.

He also said bits of rubber backing were found in the machine and trailed on carpet though out the house.

Investigators have speculated Altantawi, a good student with no criminal history, was torn by his parents’ divorce issues. His relationship with his mother had deteriorated and he ran away from home several times to spend more time with his father

Huranieh had been granted custody of her son and two daughters, 14 and 12 years old, and her estranged husband supervised visitation following domestic violence charges against him.

Huranieh was in the midst of a divorce from her husband, Basel Altantawi, 46; he was charged with domestic violence after Huranieh was allegedly pushed down a flight of stairs during a 2016 Valentine’s Day argument that was witnessed by the children.

The children were later ordered into counseling after Basel Altantawi – who denied pushing his wife down the stairs – pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of spousal abuse.

Court records and people familiar with the family have told investigators the pair argued about money, and the raising of Muhammad and two sisters. Basel Altantawi was upset by his wife’s spending habits and the “lavish lifestyle” she created for her children.

Altantawi felt the family was being “Americanized” by his estranged wife in contrast to their conservative Muslim and Syrian roots. The couple wed in Syria in 1999.

Basel Altantawi, who owned and operated a clinic in Canton, was convicted of Medicaid fraud, lost his medical license and was ordered to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution or go to prison. He sat in a row Friday directly behind his son, frequently consulting with his attorneys.

As the teenager was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom by police, he looked at his father, smiled and appeared to be fighting back tears.