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A man has been charged in the killing of Detroit synagogue president Samantha Woll

Police block the area near the scene where Samantha Woll was found dead outside her Detroit home on October 21.
Sarah Rice
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AFP via Getty Images
Police block the area near the scene where Samantha Woll was found dead outside her Detroit home on October 21.

A man has been charged in connection with the fatal stabbing of Samantha Woll, the Jewish community leader who was found dead outside of her Detroit home in late October.

Woll, 40, had served as the board president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue since last year. She previously worked in Democratic politics, including on campaigns for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and state Attorney General Dana Nessel — who were among the many elected officials and loved ones who publicly mourned her death in recent weeks.

Prosecutors charged 28-year-old Michael Jackson-Bolanos of Detroit with committing a felony murder during the "perpetration or attempted perpetration of a larceny and/or a first-degree home invasion," Detroit police announced on Wednesday.

Authorities said at a press conference that they believe Woll was killed during a break-in, not in an overt act of antisemitism as some had initially feared.

She was killed exactly two weeks after Hamas' attack on Israel, which sparked a war in the region and a sharp spike in hate incidents across the U.S., including the killing of a Palestinian-American child in Chicago earlier that same week that authorities said was an anti-Muslim attack.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Wednesday that there is "not a shred of evidence" indicating that Woll's killing was similarly motivated.

"There are no facts to suggest that this defendant knew Ms. Woll, and there are certainly no facts to suggest that this was a hate crime," Worthy said.

Jackson-Bolanos also faces one count of home invasion and another of lying to a peace officer. Authorities say he knowingly made false statements to police who questioned him after linking him to motor vehicle larcenies near Woll's home on the day she was killed.

Michael Jackson-Bolanos, 28, was arraigned on charges related to Woll's killing on Wednesday.
Detroit Police Department / AP
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AP
Michael Jackson-Bolanos, 28, was arraigned on charges related to Woll's killing on Wednesday.

Worthy repeatedly declined to answer questions about why Woll's house was targeted and whether the suspect acted alone, promising that such details would come out during legal proceedings. Jackson-Bolanos' next scheduled court date is Dec. 27.

The felony murder charge is punishable by life in prison without parole. Efforts to reach Brian Brown, a lawyer for Jackson-Bolanos, were unsuccessful, but the Detroit Free Press reports that Brown maintained his client's innocence during an arraignment on Wednesday. Brown said his client was a "victim of circumstance."

Woll's family, meanwhile, told the newspaper in a statement that they "firmly believe" police have successfully solved the case. They thanked police for their "tireless efforts," as well as everyone who offered support and prayers.

"Samantha's death is an unspeakable tragedy that has affected not only her family and friends, but also those who knew her as a devoted, community activist, leader and bridge builder," her family said. "She was loved deeply and her light spread far and wide."

How police found their suspect

Woll left a wedding in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 21 and was found unresponsive outside her home later that morning, according to police.

They believe Woll was stabbed inside her home and then stumbled into her front yard, based on the trail of blood leading inside. Someone eventually saw her and called the police, who declared her dead at the scene.

The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide caused by "multiple sharp force wounds with a straight-edge cutting instrument," Worthy said Wednesday.

Worthy stressed that the police investigation took time because it was so thorough, involving all kinds of forensic and electronic evidence, including videos and cell phones.

"Investigations don't usually happen in the 44 minute legal procedural-type TV shows," Worthy said. "They take time, they take attention, they take energy, they take passion, they take experience."

Detroit police took an unnamed person of interest into custody on Nov. 8, but released them several days later. That was not Jackson-Bolanos, they confirmed on Wednesday.

Detroit Police Chief James White said Jackson-Bolanos came on authorities' radar about three weeks ago, as he was being investigated for larcenies. He declined to get into specifics, but suggested that Jackson-Bolanos' behavior during questioning raised red flags for officers.

"There was something about what transpired in our conversations with him ... that allowed us to continue down the path of the investigation and start linking some other things to his actions and activities," White said.

White said police didn't have enough evidence to keep Jackson-Bolanos in custody, but "kept an eye on him" after he was released. He stressed that they were monitoring his movements and confident that no one in the community was at risk.

Once police got the information that precipitated an arrest, he added, they acted within an hour to get him into custody without incident.

Authorities declined to answer questions about whether Jackson-Bolanos had a criminal history, stressing that he is innocent until proven guilty.

However several media outlets have since reported, citing criminal records, that he was sentenced to prison and probation in 2014 and 2019 for receiving and concealing stolen property.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.