ASPEN HILL, Md. (WJLA) - A fatal house fire, which first appeared to be accidental, has morphed into a sizeable arson and homicide investigation.
Police say Hani Haleem, 57, of Aspen Hill, used a sharp object to repeatedly stab his mother, Somaya Haleem, 82, an American immigrant. It's alleged Haleem then torched the modest two-story home he shared with his mother in the 4600 block of Iris Street.
Around 4:35 a.m. Thursday, neighbors smelled smoke and saw flames pouring from the Haleem residence. Firefighters arrived within minutes of the initial dispatch, entered the engulfed structure and found Somaya Haleem in a second floor bedroom. Rescuers hoisted her body out a small window and carried her down a metal ladder to a waiting ambulance. Doctors pronounced the 82-year-old dead at a local trauma center.
"We were listening to the news this morning and couldn't believe it," neighbor Dan Rondeau said. "To have something like that happen, it's just unbelievable."
An ABC 7 News camera captured video of a shirtless Hani Haleem speaking with investigators following the blaze. When police learned of the suspicious wounds to his mother's body, they took the 57-year-old in for questioning. According to charging documents filed in Montgomery County District Court, Haleem first denied stabbing his mother, but later confessed to the killing.
"If I saw my brother I'd kill him," Somaya Haleem's 52-year-old son Sam said. "How could you do that to your own mother?"
Sam Haleem, the middle of five children, says his brother Hani struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for decades.
"My brother lived a troubled life. He was incapable of caring for himself, so he lived with my mom," Sam Haleem added.
The Maryland Judiciary Case Search website lists more than half-a-dozen criminal charges against Hani Haleem dating back to the 1990s. In Feb. 2003, Montgomery County Police arrested the then 45-year-old on drug and weapons charges. March 2008 brought another drug charge, and in Oct. 2012, Haleem was cited for an open container of alcohol.
"It's definitely disturbing and upsetting," neighbor Sterling O'Neil, who's known the Haleem family for decades remarked. "I can't think he [Hani Haleem] was in his right mind at the time, that's my only guess."
According to fire officials, the early morning blaze was strong and fierce, fed by a ruptured natural gas line. At one point, a fireball erupted in the basement, rocketing debris to the second floor. Shortly thereafter, the floor near the first level stairwell collapsed. Fearing a structural collapse, all units evacuated the home and began an external fight. Three firefighters were treated for minor heat exhaustion.
Restoration crews spent most of Thursday and Friday securing the home so major crimes detectives and fire explosion investigators could begin safely processing the crime scene.
Meanwhile less than five miles away, a soft-spoken Hani Haleem appeared via videoconference during his bond review Friday. Addressing Judge Eugene Wolfe with, "yes sir" and "no sir," Haleem, who is facing a charge of First Degree Murder, requested to meet with a public defender. His bond review was consequently postponed to Monday at 1 p.m.
"I am still in shock," Sam Haleem added. "My mom lived for her family. She would come to my home to cook, clean and do my laundry. Not because I asked, but because it brought her such fulfillment."
Somaya Haleem and her late husband immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the early 1960s. First settling in Boston, the Haleems moved to their Iris Street home in 1974 for work. While her husband, a scientist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center spent his days in a laboratory, Haleem passionately kept stability on the home front.
"She was a mom's mom. She lived for two things, her family and Lebanese culture. She was loving and caring, but also strong and self-sufficient," Sam Haleem remarked. "I'm going to miss her so much."
In accordance with Lebanese tradition, a funeral service was held Friday afternoon for Somaya Haleem --- exactly one day after she passed away.