Puzzle lingers after murder

DA, sheriff ponder implications of Hillsdale case

HILLSDALE–Lois Decker’s murderer, a registered sex offender, who served prison time and was ordered deported by an immigration judge, did not slip through the cracks in the justice or immigration system. He was intentionally released into the community.

The brutal strangulation last November of Mrs. Decker, the 73-year-old Sunday School teacher and former public school head cook, left her family, friends, neighbors and the community wondering why and how this could have happened in their small rural hamlet.

Part of the answer is that federal officials of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement believed they were required to release Shafiqul Islam based on Supreme Court decisions.

The Columbia Paper sat down with county District Attorney Paul Czajka, Sheriff David Harrison, Jr., and Sheriff’s Office Senior Investigator Kevin Skype earlier this month to talk about the case. With Mr. Islam now spending the rest of his life in prison following his guilty plea, Sheriff Harrison said his primary responsibility to insure that the case was investigated and justice done for Mrs. Decker and her family is behind him. Both the sheriff and the DA believe it’s time now to turn their attention to finding out how it all happened and what can be done to prevent similar crimes in the future.

Mr. Islam entered the U.S. as a “Lawful Permanent Resident” from Bangladesh in 1998 when he was seven-years old. He was convicted of having sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old girl in Hudson 10 years later in September 2008 and was sentenced by Columbia County Judge Jonathan Nichols to three years in prison, seven years probation and to register as a sex offender.

In a December 11, 2008 court document  a U.S. Immigration Court judge ordered Mr. Islam removed from this country and sent back to Bangladesh.

According to Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), when Mr. Islam was paroled from the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, October 1, 2010, he was “immediately transferred to ICE custody to be removed from the United States.” But to remove Mr. Islam, then a deportable alien, ICE had to secure travel documents allowing him to depart the U.S. and enter a foreign country.

“Every alien’s removal requires the cooperation of another country. We can’t just throw people out of a plane,” Mr. Feinstein said in an emailed statement and a phone interview.

But Bangladesh did not cooperate. Apparently, Mr. Islam’s native country did not want him back.

After “calls and emails to the Bangladesh consulate went unreturned and unanswered,” wrote Mr. Feinstein, Mr. “Islam had to be released” based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in two cases, Zadvydas and Martinez.

While the court decision defines six months as the time frame for release, ICE held Mr. Islam for just over a year until October 3, 2011, because the agency “had received notification that the Bangladesh consulate was likely to issue travel documents.” When no documents materialized after a year, ICE determined his removal was “not reasonably foreseeable” and released him from ICE custody “while we continue working to effectuate removal.

“When evaluating whether or not to continue the detention of a given alien, ICE considers several factors… including risk of flight, danger to the community and whether there is a significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future. These factors apply to both criminal and non-criminal aliens who are subject to final orders of removal regardless of the severity of their crimes,” Mr. Feinstein wrote.

Sheriff Harrison points out that immigration officials determined Mr. Islam was enough of a threat to detain him for an additional six months, yet let him go anyway. “If he was dangerous enough to keep in detention for 366 days, why not keep him longer?” said the DA, stressing his comments are not related to issues of legal immigration. “[Mr.] Islam is a person who forfeited his privilege to be in this country by virtue of his criminal conduct.”

No policy or protocol exists that required ICE to notify local authorities of Mr. Islam’s release, so whether there are other convicted felons who have done their time and are awaiting deportation walking around in Columbia County “there’s no way for us to know,” the DA said.

State prison authorities routinely make notifications about the release of people who will be returning to addresses in the county, according to the sheriff. Mr. Islam was on parole and did check in regularly with a parole officer at the state level and complied with terms of his sex offender registration by reporting his change of address from Hudson to Hillsdale following his release.

Mr. Islam moved to Hillsdale in connection with his job, which was working for a general contractor/handyman based in Massachusetts. His employer picked Mr. Islam up for work each day and suggested to him it would be easier if he found an apartment closer to his job, so Mr. Islam found a room at the Mount Washington House.

He was on public assistance and the address had been approved for funding through the Columbia County Department of Social Services (DSS). A call to DSS Commissioner Paul Mossman about the matter was not returned.

Though authorities do not know why, they do know that Mr. Islam was still looking for another place to live, and that his employer’s assistant was driving Mr. Islam around looking for possibilities. That’s when he saw an “apartment for rent” sign outside Mrs. Decker’s house on Cold Water Street in the hamlet and he wrote down the phone number.

Between then and when he returned the following day, sometime between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., November 20, 2011, the day of the murder, Mr. Islam did call that phone number, according to cell phone records obtained by police, but whether he actually had a conversation with Mrs. Decker is not known. No evidence of forced entry was found at the Decker house.

At 6:42 p.m. that day, Mr. Islam was involved in a rollover accident with Mrs. Decker’s stolen car on Route 23 in Martindale.

When passersby stopped to help him, he tried to steal one of their cars and after he was prevented from doing so, took a man’s truck from a nearby garage.

He was later found and taken into custody by State Police at the corner of Warren and Sixth streets in Hudson at 9:56 p.m. He was driving the stolen truck and had a credit card stolen from Mrs. Decker in his possession.

A Sheriff’s Office sergeant found Mrs. Decker’s body when he went to her house after being unable to reach her by phone to talk to her about her car.

Mr. Islam did not speak to investigators about the crime, so they have no idea what happened leading up to the murder.

“We have no reason to believe, none, that the fact that Mrs. Decker had an apartment for rent is in any way connected to the murder, except by coincidence,” said the DA.

Whether Mr. Islam knew or didn’t know who lived at the Cold Water Street address, or if he planned or did not plan the murder remain unknown.

In the hundreds of interviews conducted by investigators, there was no evidence that Mr. Islam knew or had any contact with Mrs. Decker before he showed up at her house on the day of the murder.

“He could have just as easily gone into any house,” said the DA, “You can’t assign rational conduct to an irrational person.”

Asked if he could offer any safety advice to the public relevant to the case, Sheriff Harrison said whether you have an apartment to rent or something for sale it is wise to have someone else there with you. Never show an apartment or your house or an item inside your home except by appointment and when the potential buyer arrives always have someone else there or at least call a family member, friend or neighbor to let them know you have someone coming to your residence.

The sheriff suggests using the same precautions you would if a stranger came to your door, ask for identification and if at any point you feel uncomfortable turn that person away or call 911.

“This was a tragic and unusual event,” said the sheriff. Mr. Islam “never should have been in Hillsdale or Columbia County in the first place.”

The district attorney and the sheriff have an appointment with Congressman Gibson this Friday at the congressman’s Kinderhook office. “We think the place to start is with our representative who lives in the county, maybe he can advise us about what is the next step,” said the sheriff.

Calls to offices of Congressman Gibson and Senator Chuck Schumer were not returned by press deadline.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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