A 6-year-old boy was killed and his mother critically injured when they were stabbed by a man who targeted them because they were Muslim in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas, police and relatives of the victims said.
The woman, 32, called 911 Saturday morning and told dispatchers that her landlord in southwest suburban Plainfield Township was attacking her with a knife, the Will County Sheriff’s Department said.
Police arrived at the home in 16000 block of South Lincoln Highway about 11:38 a.m. and found the woman and the boy each with multiple stab wounds, an autopsy found. The boy had been stabbed 26 times.
They were transported to a nearby hospital, where the boy was pronounced dead. The woman was in serious condition, according to Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which held a press conference with relatives of the boy and his mom Sunday afternoon.
Police found the suspect, 71-year-old Joseph Czuba, outside the residence and took him into custody. Czuba was charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of a hate crime and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Authorities said both victims were attacked because of their Muslim faith and the war in Israel.
“Detectives were able to determine that both victims in this brutal attack were targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis,” the sheriff’s department said.
CAIR identified the boy as Wadea Al-Fayoume, and his mother as Hanan Shaheen. The organization’s news conference included the boy’s father, uncle and other family members at the Muslim Community Center in Chicago.
The mother and child were both Palestinian American, Rehab said. The mother has been in the U.S. for 12 years, and the boy was born in the U.S. He celebrated his 6th birthday Oct. 6.
Rehab said the boy loved basketball, soccer and “anything with a ball.” He liked playing on the swings and coloring.
“He loved his family and friends, he loved life,” Rehab said.
The boy’s father, Oday Al Fayoume, was “in shock” at the news conference, Rehab said, but he spoke briefly in Arabic with Rehab translating.
“Gratitude to God in any situation,” he said.
When asked how people can best honor his son, he said: “To bring accountability for his life taken too soon … the memory of his son will live with them but for them to feel that his life was meaningful … justice has to be achieved.”
Rehab said he viewed text messages from the boy’s mother to the boy’s father saying that Czuba knocked on their door Saturday morning and attacked her and made anti-Muslim statements. The texts said she went into the bathroom, dialed 911, and when she came out, she found her son with multiple stab wounds, Rehab said.
“It all happened in seconds,” she texted. Police did not immediately confirm the details from the text messages.
Rehab said Czuba had built a treehouse for the child, and the family had no previous problems with him.
“I ask you, what level of hate, blind hatred, could cause such an act?” Rehab asked at a news conference Sunday afternoon.
‘They were good people’
Mariola Jagodzinski, a neighbor, said Shahin and her son rented a room in the house owned by Czuba and his wife, and had lived there for at least a couple of years.
Jagodzinski said she had donated some of her children’s old toys to the young boy and his mom around the time they first moved in. “They were good people,” Jagodzinski said.
Jagodzinski said she didn’t hear any noise at the time of the attack. But she saw some of the aftermath of the stabbing from behind her fence.
“I saw how they carried the boy on a stretcher, full of blood,” Jagodzinski said. “The body was lifeless. It was hard to see that. They were running, rushing to try to save him.”
Jagodzinski described Czuba as an “extremely” religious person, and added that she hadn’t had any issues with him or his wife in the time she’s lived on the block. She said Czuba would sometimes help her fix things around the house.
“They were good neighbors, quiet. Joe was very helpful as a neighbor, he didn’t hesitate to help us or anything like that,” Jagodzinski said.
“It’s very hard for me to believe that he killed the boy and attacked the mom because of a hate crime,” she said. “I am shocked. Even though she is Muslim and they are different, Catholic or Christian, I didn’t see this problem between them.” But Jagodzinski didn’t know what was going on inside the house, she added.
Neighbors said Czuba liked to collect things he found in the street and display them in front of his home. Old political campaign signs, tattered U.S. flags, discolored children’s playground sets, broken exercise equipment and other items were strewn around the yard.
Dozens of wooden crosses were planted in a row across the front lawn. A large sign reading “School of the Rock” was displayed in front of the home.
The attack comes as tensions in Gaza have escalated following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by the militant group Hamas and retaliatory airstrikes. More than 2,670 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting erupted, and more than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, the vast majority of them civilians.
Rehab said harmful and “one-sided” rhetoric from the media has intensified prejudice and led to violence.
On Sunday on X, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement: “We’re disgusted and horrified that a 6-year-old boy was murdered and his mother was severely injured in #Plainfield, IL, allegedly because they are Muslim. We express our condolences to the Muslim community and categorically reject all anti-Muslim hate.”
Some area residents stopped by the home Sunday afternoon to show support for the victims, including a woman who said she didn’t know the victims personally but dropped off flowers.
Bolingbrook resident Wally Harazin, 50, said the attack was personal for him as a Muslim with relatives in Gaza. He blamed the attack on what he said was unfair coverage of the Israel-Hamas conflict, leading to bias against Muslims and those from Middle Eastern countries.
“The coverage from the media regarding the coverage of Palestinians is not fair,” Harazin said. “And then this happens. How can we protect ourselves from the lies of the media, for a lunatic like this to kill a 6-year-old. That’s hatred. That is absolutely hatred.”
Harazin, who drove with his family to Plainfield to show solidarity with a fellow Muslim family, said his children have been affected by the attack.
“How can I protect my kids? How can every Muslim in this country, that we call free, how can they protect their kids,” Harazin said. “Is this the last hate crime that is going to be against Muslims? I do not think so.”
Yousef Hannon, the boy’s uncle and a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, decried the anti-Islamic commentary since last week’s attack: “It hurts me every day.”
Hannon said his family members living in Gaza are facing power outages and food and water shortages under the Israeli occupation.
“This picture has to be changed,” he said. “I was talking to my family in Gaza. I don’t know what’s happening to them now. My last communication was three days ago.”
State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid (21st), who attended the press conference, said: “It really breaks my heart to have to be here today to mourn the death of a 6-year-old boy. This was directly connected to the dehumanization of Palestinians. … I know there’s gonna be people who say we condemn this heinous crime, who say hate has no home here. That is not enough.
“If we want to see these attacks stopped here in Illinois and all over the country … we have to call out not just this heinous crime and others that may occur but call for a cease fire, deescalation and peace.”
Protests and vigils in support of both Palestinians and Israelis have been held across the city in recent days.
In a statement Sunday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said: “To take a six year old child’s life in the name of bigotry is nothing short of evil. Wadea should be heading to school in the morning. Instead, his parents will wake up without their son. This wasn’t just a murder — it was a hate crime. And every single Illinoisan — including our Muslim, Jewish and Palestinian neighbors — deserves to live free from the threat of such evil.”
The Illinois State Police says it is coordinating statewide law enforcement communications and activity in response to the elevated level of threats of violence and hate crime related to the current conflict in the Middle East.
The agency has reached out to the Illinois Muslim community and continues to communicate with and support religious leaders across Illinois who are impacted by the current elevated threat environment. Intelligence sharing and communication with local and federal partners continue around the clock with all of ISP’s assets remaining at a heightened state of readiness appropriate to this evolving and volatile situation.
Elaine Hadley is a dedicated journalist covering the ever-evolving landscape of U.S. news. With a keen interest in politics and a commitment to uncovering the truth, she provides insightful commentary and in-depth analysis on domestic issues. When not reporting, Elaine enjoys exploring the diverse cultures and landscapes of the United States.