Farmington Hills teen charged in mother’s death bound over to circuit court

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published December 18, 2017

 Muhammad Al-Tantawi attends his preliminary examination Dec. 8 in the 47th District Court.

Muhammad Al-Tantawi attends his preliminary examination Dec. 8 in the 47th District Court.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Sgt. Richard Wehby testifies during the preliminary examination.

Sgt. Richard Wehby testifies during the preliminary examination.

Photo by Deb Jacques

FARMINGTON HILLS — A 16-year-old boy charged with the death of his mother in August was bound over to Oakland County Circuit Court after a preliminary examination Dec. 8 in the 47th District Court.

Judge Marla Parker determined that there was enough probable cause in the case to bind over Muhammad Al-Tantawi, who was charged as an adult Aug. 28 in the 47th District Court in connection with the death of his mother, Nada Huranieh.

Al-Tantawi’s bond during the arraignment was denied, and he was ordered to be held at Children’s Village, according to a press release. The defendant was ordered to surrender his passport as well. 

Al-Tantawi‘s preliminary examination was a continuation from one on Nov. 17 before Parker.

Police and the Farmington Hills Fire Department responded to a 911 call at 6:40 a.m. Aug. 20 from a home on Howard Road — between Drake and Halsted roads — regarding Huranieh, 35, who was found to be unconscious.

The caller told first responders that the woman was the victim of an accident. Police and paramedics attempted to revive the woman, but were unsuccessful.

Detectives discovered evidence signifying that her death was not the result of an accident, police said.  

A press release states that police and the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office issued a complaint and a warrant for second-degree murder for Al-Tantawi.

Al-Tantawi was later charged with the offense of murder in the first degree, premeditated; the felony is punishable by life without parole, or a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years — there is a maximum sentence of at least 60 years.

The first part of the preliminary examination called two witnesses — Farmington Hills Police Department Officer Nathan Jordan and Dr. Ruben Ortiz-Reyes, a forensic pathologist working for Oakland County as a deputy medical examiner, among 14 evidentiary photos of the crime scene and a surveillance video from the house, according to court transcripts and witness statements.

The suspect’s Novi-based attorney, David Kramer, said that for the purposes of the arraignment, his client stood mute and waived a formal reading, according to the transcripts.

Ortiz-Reyes, who examined Huranieh, said in November that her cause of death was asphyxia by smothering, with a contributory cause of blunt-force head trauma.

“In this case, the manner was a homicide because the person couldn’t breathe herself,” Ortiz-Reyes said in November.

He reiterated on Dec. 8 that she had a wound to her lower lip, on the right side of her face, and a bloodless wound at the top of her head.

Ortiz-Reyes said those injuries indicate that she was already dead when they were inflicted.

Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office Circuit Court Division Chief John Skrzynski confirmed Dec. 8 with Ortiz-Reyes that there was bacteria found in Huranieh’s lungs because she was “gasping for air” at the time she was being smothered.

He said that someone could lose consciousness in seconds, and it takes about two to four minutes for someone to die by smothering.

During a lengthy cross-examination, Kramer asked Ortiz-Reyes about the validity of his autopsy report because there were parts crossed off.

He also said that affidavits from some Farmington Hills police officers show that he indicated to them that Huranieh’s death was caused by trauma from a fall.

“Would that be true?” Kramer asked Ortiz-Reyes.

Ortiz-Reyes said that when more information comes along, he updates the report.

“During the workup of the case, people come with ideas — I might have said (something else) because that was the information at the time,” he said.

Kramer asked him to explain why the cause of death states “multiple injuries” and is then crossed off.

Ortiz-Reyes reiterated that multiple injuries were his first impression of the cause of Huranieh’s death, but it changed.

Kramer asked him if after watching the surveillance video — which was a camera affixed to the home and pointing to the vicinity of where Huranieh fell — he changed his mind.

Ortiz-Reyes said that the video and more information that was revealed during the autopsy caused him to change his mind.

Ortiz-Reyes maintained after a redirected question from Skrzynski that Huranieh did not die from falling out the window.

Another witness, Sgt. Richard Wehby, spoke to Skrzynski’s co-counsel, Paul Walton.

Wehby said that he was at the scene and inside Huranieh’s house. He said the upstairs bedroom where Huranieh fell from looked somewhat off.

There was bathroom cleaner, Tilex, sitting on top of a step stool in that bedroom, and some of its contents were sprayed on the window in the room.

“I’ve never seen anybody clean windows with Tilex,” he said.

Also in the room was a ladder against a wall, near a screenless window, and a bucket filled with an unknown liquid.

He added that while looking out the window to where Huranieh lay, he could see an indentation in a ledge, about 5 feet down, that had pieces of her hair embedded into it from where she fell.

Walton also learned from Wehby that there had been no forced entry into the home.

During the time of Huranieh’s death, Al-Tantawi and his two younger sisters were home; Huranieh and her estranged husband, Dr. Basil Al-Tantawi, were going through a divorce. He did not live in the home and was in Canton at the time of her murder, based on his tether reading — which he had on because of an unrelated matter.  

Wehby said that the surveillance camera video shows Huranieh partially falling, and afterward shadows of a person are visible due to light reflecting down from the bedroom window outside where she fell.

He said that the bedroom lights were on and the police, when viewing the video, could see movement from those shadows “flickering back and forth.”

“It (the video) comes up — she appears into view falling, landing on the patio and doesn’t move,” Wehby said, adding that it appeared odd to police as she was falling because it did not appear that she was struggling. “Looked more like a limp body that was falling.”

He added that it appeared that someone was putting a ladder in front of the window, and lights were going on and off.

While in court, Al-Tantawi, dressed in a green jumpsuit and partially shackled so that he could take notes with his right hand, appeared stoic. He sat in front of his father, who spoke to him briefly, and Al-Tantawi smiled back at him.

Wehby said that after the murder, he interviewed Al-Tantawi, who was willing to talk.

He learned from Al-Tantawi that on the night of the incident, after going to a local mosque in the evening, he went home and got into bed and did not come back out until the next day upon hearing his sister screaming after finding their mother dead.

He later changed his story, according to Wehby, to say that he left his bedroom to get some water when his mother — whom he said had planned to clean that upstairs bedroom window — asked for his help with getting a cleaning supply.

Wehby said that Al-Tantawi provided that new piece of information after reportedly learning from Wehby that the home’s surveillance video showed that someone else was in the room with Huranieh.

“(He) was a little taken back; slumped down in his chair,” Wehby said of Al-Tantawi’s reported countenance. 

Shannon Smith, co-counsel for Al-Tantawi, said that Wehby put words in Al-Tantawi’s mouth and basically verbally beat him down to confess. She also questioned why he did not speak to other potential suspects about Huranieh’s death upon learning that she had been shunned by some in the Muslim community for becoming too Americanized, had an estranged relationship with her husband, and had a strained relationship with her son and family members, who were upset with the divorce.

“(Is it) fair to say that from the beginning that Muhammad was the only suspect?” Smith asked.

Wehby said that being shunned is not a criminal offense and that her estranged husband was in Canton at the time of the murder.

Skrzynski said in closing arguments that there is no accidental smothering because the act is an evident intent to kill someone.

“We know there is another person in the room,” he said. “The court saw the shadow from the lawn … you can see another person gradually inching out the window.”

Skrzynski said that Al-Tantawi staged the scene after his mother’s death to make it look like she was cleaning the window and fell from the ladder.

“He staged this as an accident because he knows he actually smothered her,” he said.

Kramer said that Ortiz-Reyes’ autopsy report was “inconsistent at best.”

“He changes his cause of death,” he said, adding that the surveillance video does not show Al-Tantawi’s face.

“There is no direct proof that Muhammad did this,” he said.

Parker ruled that it is up to the court to determine whether a crime was committed.

“I’ve heard the testimony from the medical examiner. … (I) do believe a crime was committed,” she said.

After the ruling, Kramer hugged Al-Tantawi before he was taken back into custody. 

Itzi Saar, former vice president of the Franklin Athletic Club, where Huranieh worked, said after the ruling that Huranieh was important to the community.

“She was loved,” Saar said, adding that Muhammad was a “nice child,” but she had no comment on his alleged actions.

“The mom always wanted the best for those kids. … We all loved him,” Saar said, her voice quivering with emotion.

She added that the situation is very upsetting. “I have no idea what happened.”