Hearing probes teen's statements after mom's death
Pontiac — The father of a Farmington Hills teen charged in his mother’s August 2017 death testified Monday that he repeatedly implored detectives not to talk to his son until he had an attorney present.
Muhammad Altantawi, 17, is charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of his mother, Nada Huranieh. Investigators believe she was smothered and her body dropped out a third-floor window of their Farmington Hills mansion to make the death look like an accident.
Attorneys argued about whether the teen's statements to investigators should be admissible at Altantawi's trial, set for Dec. 3. Oakland Circuit Judge Martha Anderson, who presided over Monday's hearing, will make that decision.
“They (police) hijacked my house and my kids,” an agitated Bassel Altantawi, the teen’s father, told Anderson. “They violated my refusal for them talking to him.”
But John Skrzynski, Oakland County assistant prosecuting attorney, countered that nowhere in the record of police tape recordings can any such request be found.
He said at one point, when the elder Altantawi is told by detectives they want to clear up a “timeline” in the case, a transcript reflects the teen's father begrudgingly said “OK” as he left the house to pick up his 14-year-old daughter at a library a few miles away.
Skrzynski also mentioned a black T-shirt the father wore Monday, with the words “Innocent until proven guilty” in large red, white and blue letters.
“I find it strange that you have attended all of these hearings always in a suit and tie — until today,” Skrzynski noted. “But today, with a TV camera in the courtroom, you decide to wear that shirt.”
If Anderson finds the son’s rights were violated, she could exclude statements he made to police that fit into a circumstantial case against him as the person responsible for the death of the 35-year-old physical fitness trainer.
Muhammad Altantawi, in blue Children Village jail garb, sat impassively as attorneys questioned police officers on what prompted the differing explanations the teen gave to detectives in his home on Aug. 22, the day after the body of his mother was found on the patio of their home by his 14-year-old sister.
Nada Huranieh, Muhammad and his two sisters, aged 12 and 14 years old were all at home at the time.
Initially, Altantawi told investigators he was asleep and awoke to his older sister’s screams after she found the body.
But under further questioning, and upon learning police had recovered a home security video that showed someone else in the home pushing the body out a third-store window, Altantawi recalled getting up to get a drink of water and finding his mother cleaning a window. Then he said he fetched cleaning supplies for her and, ultimately, saw her fall to her death.
The teen was also videotaped making what Farmington Hills police Sgt. Richard Wehby described as one-handed, “half-hearted” CPR attempts on his mother until paramedics arrived.
Wehby said in an effort to get the teenager to open up, he offered some theories to Altantawi that the fall might have been an accident that the teen witnessed when his mother was on the ladder.
“He finally said he was in the room when she fell and he looked down and went back to his room, showered and went to bed because he didn’t want to think about it,” Wehby said under questioning by Skrzynski.
When Altantawi’s defense attorney Michael Schiano pressed the officer on why he would provide such an explanation, Wehby replied: “It was something I threw out there and he (Muhammad) latched on to it.”
Wehby said when he told the teen the security video was going to be “slowed down and enlarged” to get a “snapshot” of the killer, he saw a sudden change in Altantawi.
“He said he would have to think about it … it was like he was trying to come up with something,” Wehby said. “… After that interview, we weren’t leaving him out of our sight.”
The statements, which the Prosecutor’s Office has described as voluntary “admissions, not confessions,” play into a circumstantial case that point to the teen as the killer. There were no signs of forced entry in the home, and cameras do not indicate anyone else entering or leaving the dwelling.
The parents were in the midst of a divorce, according to court records and his father had been ordered to live elsewhere.
Upon learning of his wife’s death, the father rushed to the home and told police he did not want his children being taken to the police station. At one point, he left the house to pick up his oldest daughter at the library but insisted he left instructions “not to talk to the kids.”
Schiano noted it was during a 40-minute absence that investigators quizzed the son without his father present. Wehby said the father never said they could not talk to his son when he left the house.
But when he returned and heard his son was going to jail over the death, the father said: “In the beginning, I said I wanted a lawyer here.”
Court records show the couple’s separation had caused issues in the family. The son had run away from home on several occasions for meetings with his father, who had expressed concern about how his estranged wife was “Americanizing” their children, contrary to their conservative Muslim and Syrian roots. The couple had wed in Syria in 1999.
Months before Huranieh's death, all three children were at home and witnessed their father allegedly push his wife down a flight of stairs during an argument, court records indicate. Altantawi pleaded no contest to a lesser offense in the incident.
Anderson gave Schiano until Oct. 15 to provide her with briefs on the facts and law to consider in deciding whether to exclude the teen's incriminating statements. Skrzynski will have the following week to provide a written response.
Altantawi has been in custody for 14 months. Anderson said she feared “the trial will be pushed back again.”