Farmington Hills man found guilty of first-degree murder of his mother

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — An Oakland Circuit Court jury deliberated less than three hours Monday before finding a 20-year-old  Farmington Hills man guilty of first-degree premeditated murder of his mother four years ago and trying to make it look like an accidental fall.

Jurors sat through seven days of testimony in which the prosecution portrayed Muhammad Altantawi as a scheming teenager, angry at his mother for divorcing his father. 

Muhammad Altantawi was found guilty Monday of first-degree premeditated murder of his mother, Nada Huranieh. Prosecutors said he smothered her, threw her out a second-story window, then made it look like an accident.

Only 16 years old at the time, Muhammad sided with his father Bassell Altantawi, then 46. He blamed his 35-year-old mother, Nada Huranieh, with splitting up their family with her rejection of traditional Syrian and Islamic customs, such as wearing a hijab and her perceived permissive raising of his two sisters, ages 12 and 14 at the time.

He believed his mother only wanted to take his father’s 11,000-square-foot mansion and money. The parents had married in 1999.

Investigators believe Altantawi suffocated his mother, threw her body out a second-floor window of their home about 6 a.m. on August 21, 2017, and  then staged it to look like an accidental fall.

Only Huranieh and her three children were in the home that night. Bassell was ordered out of the house in 2016 after a Valentine’s Day domestic-violence incident in which he pushed his wife down some stairs. She filed for divorce the following month.

In a two-hour closing argument Monday, assistant prosecuting attorney John  Skrzynski said the youth’s own lies, missteps in police interviews, phone records and scene evidence are proof he killed his mother, possibly first rendering her helpless with a chemical inhalant of some kind.

Skrzynski told jurors how:

♦Muhammad spied on his mother the days and weeks leading up to the death and texted his father photos of receipts, including a deed to a second house she had bought and a photo of the window she fell or was pushed out.

♦Muhammad told police he didn’t get up until after 6 a.m. the morning his mother died, but phone records revealed he had received or made numerous calls to his father beginning at 4:30 a.m.

♦The body’s lifeless position on the ground was not consistent with a fall from the window.

♦Video from six home surveillance cameras appeared to show someone moving around the house in different rooms and “hoisting” a body out the window of a make-up room.

♦A tile-cleaning substance and bucket found on a ladder near the window would have been disturbed if Huranieh’s legs had kicked out from the rungs.

♦He changed his story on his location and times in the house when it didn’t conform with lighted rooms in the surveillance video.

♦His sister said he always showered at night but that morning she heard him showering around 6 a.m.

♦Clothes and a rubber mat were found the day of the death in a laundry room washing machine which had automatically shut off. The next day the mat had been removed and put in a plastic bag inside a hamper under clothes.

Oakland County Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic testified an autopsy revealed that Huranieh, a health club fitness instructor, was smothered with a damp cloth or towel and likely dead before ever going out the window.

But one of Altantawi’s defense lawyers, Michael Schiano, argued their young client had neither motivation nor the physical strength to accomplish a crime he described as based on nothing more than speculative theory in an otherwise “pristine” crime scene with no signs of struggle.

He noted there was “no blood, no DNA on anything, no direct evidence” linking his client to the death.

“What he is describing, including chloroform is more like a James Bond film,”  Schiano said in his one-hour closing argument. “Nothing like that was ever found in the house or in her. It doesn’t exist.

“He (prosecutor) wants you to believe this or that is possible,” Schiano told the jury. “Don’t do it. Your job is to consider facts, not possibilities.”

Witnesses, including Altantawi’s sister, Aya Altantawi, now 20, who testified her brother was becoming increasingly upset about their mother – whom he called “not a good Muslim” and referenced as a “dog” on his cellphone. He was also concerned his father might go to prison for insurance fraud, aided by his mother’s pending deposition in the case.

In 2016, Bassell Altantawi was charged by the Michigan State Attorney General with Medicare fraud at his Urgent Care Clinic in Canton. That March he entered a guilty plea to  counts of Medicaid fraud false claims and two counts of health care fraud, which are felonies that can carry up to four years in prison.

He was spared prison time but had his physician's license suspended in February 2017 and was required to and did pay $277,953 in restitution, according to a spokesperson in the state attorney general office.

According to divorce filings, Altantawi  – who once had an annual income in excess of $350,000 – found himself unable to work as a physician and subsequently meet support payments for his estranged wife and three children or "no longer able to support them in their lavish lifestyle" in Farmington Hills.

When his mother told him two weeks before her death that she was going to send him to live with his father, Muhammad said "You are going to get what’s coming to you."

The offense carries life in prison without parole. Defense attorneys could not be immediately reached for comment.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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