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Investigators Focus on Use of Slain Family's A.T.M. Card


Published: March 1, 2005

Hudson County investigators are studying video surveillance tapes made at automated teller machines where money was withdrawn from the account of a Jersey City man after the man and his family were stabbed to death in their home, the Hudson County prosecutor said yesterday.

The prosecutor, Edward J. De Fazio, said withdrawals were made numerous times over five or six days from the account of Hossam Armanious, 47, after he, his wife, Amal Garas, 37, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were killed. They were found dead on Jan. 14, after worried relatives called the police. The police said the four were each bound and stabbed to death.

"The A.T.M. card of Mr. Armanious was used fraudulently on a number of occasions after the murders took place," said Mr. De Fazio. "We believe the fraudulent use began the day after the murders."

The withdrawals have bolstered a possible robbery motive for the killings, which have sent shock waves through the Egyptian community in the region and raised allegations about a possible religious feud.

The family belonged to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the principal Christian church in Egypt, and Mr. Armanious was said to have been threatened with death by someone in an Internet chat room during an argument about Christianity and Islam.

"Nothing has been discounted," Mr. De Fazio said of the possibility of a religious feud. But, he added, "We have found no substantial corroboration of the chat room Internet angle."

Investigators had previously said that drawers in the house had been rifled, that Mr. Armonious's wallet was empty and that essentially no money was found in the home.

"Certainly we believe that the financial motivation exists, that's fact," he said.

Mr. De Fazio said the card was used, with Mr. Armanious's personal identification number, to take out thousands of dollars from a number of locations in the Heights section of Jersey City and in Midtown Manhattan. He would not say how many times it had been used, or exactly how much money had been taken from the combined checking, equity and savings account, nor would he say which bank had held the money.

"In no way was this account looted," he said, meaning that money remained in the account.

He said he believed the maximum amount that could be withdrawn in a single transaction was $400 to $600.

"That's the area we're talking about with the various hits," he said.

Mr. De Fazio would not say what, if anything, investigators had already seen on the surveillance tapes, nor would he say whether they believed the person who made the withdrawals was the killer.

"There's no suspect at this point, but we're guardedly optimistic that we will identify the person who was using the A.T.M. card," he said.

Investigators learned of the card's use after submitting court orders for all the family's financial records, said Mr. De Fazio, who would not specify when the A.T.M. visits were discovered. So far none of the family's credit cards have been used after the killings, he said.

Mr. De Fazio said the family did not appear to be in financial trouble. The father worked for the banquets department of the Westin Princeton hotel, and the mother worked for the United States Postal Service in Kearney. Both girls attended school.

"They were living modestly, but apparently there were resources," he said. "There's nothing to indicate any sort of nefarious activity going on, as far as the family goes."

Family members have not seen the video yet, Mr. De Fazio said, adding, "We haven't reached that point in the investigation where that's required."

The use of the A.T.M. card was first reported yesterday in The Star-Ledger.

News of a possible financial motive was greeted with skepticism by relatives and members of the Coptic Church.

"First of all, I don't believe that story, it could be just camouflage for anything the F.B.I. wants to discover, to try to make it like robbery, which is nonsense," said Monir Dawoud, acting president of the American Coptic Association. The F.B.I. is assisting in the search for the killers.

It did not make sense that "someone would be stupid enough" to use the card after all the attention given to the killings, he said.

Ayman Garas, Amal Garas's brother, also said he did not believe robbery was behind the killings. "I don't want to accuse or judge, I have to just wait the final results" of the investigation, he said.

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