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Illinois man accused of taking shots at mosque

This news story was published on August 13, 2012.
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By Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune  –

CHICAGO — A Morton Grove, Ill., resident accused of shooting at a mosque during Friday night’s heavily attended Ramadan evening prayer service has complained for years about parking, lights and noise since the construction of the Muslim house of worship near his home, members of the mosque and neighbors said.

In 2003 and 2004, David Conrad, now 51, attended village hearings to oppose the mosque and expansion of the Muslim Education Center, said Berdella Wehrmacher, 90, who said she accompanied him to the meetings.

Several residents acknowledged that the controversy led to some hard feelings that linger today. But they also expressed shock at the allegations that Conrad — described as helpful and mild-mannered — shot at the mosque with a “high-velocity air rifle,” narrowly missing a security guard, according to police.

“I just can’t imagine that,” Wehrmacher said. Federal mediation eventually resulted in an agreement between the village and the Chicago-based Muslim Community Center, which built the mosque.

“We fought to keep it away, not because it was a mosque but because they took away our park,” Wehrmacher said.

During a meeting of the Morton Grove Plan Commission on April 2, 2003, Conrad spoke out against the building of the mosque, according to a Chicago Tribune article. “It’s the only park in the neighborhood,” Conrad said at the meeting. “It is not replaceable.”

Conrad has been charged with three counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm and one count of criminal damage to property, all felonies.

A woman who answered the door at his home Sunday turned away a reporter.

While no one was hurt, the incident unnerved worshipers, especially because it occurred within days of the Aug. 5 shooting attack at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee, during which seven people, including the shooter, died.

“Everybody is very concerned about this,” said Mohammad Aleemuddin, president of the Muslim Community Center. About 500 people were inside the mosque Friday night, he said.

Conrad “has made various complaints about us,” Aleemuddin said. “We have taken care of all these things.”

Mosque leaders built a double fence to separate their parking lot from neighboring residences on Capulina Avenue to the east, he said. Officials posted signs along the fence that ask guests to keep noise to a minimum. Drivers are asked to turn their headlights off shortly before and after pulling into parking spaces near the fence, he said.

On Saturday, investigators with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and police interviewed dozens of people before arresting Conrad and confiscating the air rifle equipped with a scope, Morton Grove Police Chief Mark Erickson said.

While noting that there have been ongoing tensions between neighbors and the mosque, “this incident is highly unusual,” he said.

Mosque leaders pointed out damage to the building and windows, some of which occurred before Friday but were never reported, Erickson said.

On Friday, a private security guard reported hearing a projectile hit the outside east-facing wall of the mosque about 9:20 p.m., according to police. Investigators left two pieces of tape marking the damage to the brick wall from the shots. Police are not sure how close the projectiles came to hitting the security guard, Erickson said, but “it was close enough for him to hear it.”

Police usually increase their presence around the mosque during the month-long fasting observance known as Ramadan, just as they would heighten security near a Catholic church during Christmas, Erickson said.

During Ramadan, congregants fast by day, then break the fast and pray at sunset. Prayer sessions often continue throughout the night. The observance that focuses on self-purification has entered its final 10 days, an especially spiritual time for Muslims, worshipers said.

Some men spend the night at the mosque, “like a spiritual retreat,” said Saleem Niazi, 31, of Evanston, whose wife picked him up Sunday morning. After prayers Saturday night, he walked his wife and their two small children to their car — something he said he had never had felt the need to do before Friday’s incident.

“Of course, there is some unease,” said Niazi, reflecting on the timing after the Sikh shootings. “There’s a general sense of, ‘Well, it’s OK.’ It’s just two little things in the brick wall. But it could have hurt someone.”

His wife, Subul Niazi, 30, added: “It conjures up images. The mosques are full of kids, especially at the entrances. … It’s children, children, children.”

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