Imam Found With Razor Blades at City Jail
New York Times

Published: February 3, 2010

A Muslim chaplain for the city’s Department of Correction showed up for work on Wednesday as he routinely does — entering the city jail in Lower Manhattan to minister to some of the roughly 900 male inmates there.

But when the chaplain, Imam Zulqarnain Abu-Shahid, flung his shoulder bag onto an X-ray machine at the entrance of the Manhattan Detention Complex, at 125 White Street, officers were alerted to the presence of metal. They found a pair of scissors and three metal blades, the kind used in box cutters, in the bag’s outer flap, the authorities said.

Imam Abu-Shahid was arrested and charged with various counts of promoting prison contraband.

Later, officials made another discovery: The chaplain was an ex-convict who had been found guilty with three other men of the murder of a customer during a robbery of a supermarket in Harlem in 1976.

The chaplain’s name at the time was Paul Pitts, officials said.

He served nearly 14 years in state prison before being released on parole in 1993, said Erik Kriss, a spokesman for the State Department of Correctional Services. His conviction in 1979 occurred after what, at the time, was described as the longest criminal trial in the history of the State Supreme Court system.

Some of the chaplain’s background came out at his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court on Wednesday evening.

Alexandra Lane, an assistant district attorney, did not explain any potential motive for why Imam Abu-Shahid, 58, took the blades and scissors into the jail.

James M. McQueeney, the chaplain’s lawyer, said that his client did not know the blades were in the bag when he entered the jail. He said that was what Imam Abu-Shahid told officers at the X-ray machine.

The officers allowed Imam Abu-Shahid to go to his work station on a lower floor, but detained him later, when he came back upstairs, Mr. McQueeney said.

As for the chaplain’s past, Mr. McQueeney said, “He has completely reformed his life” and lives with his wife and two children on Staten Island.

Officials with the city’s Department of Correction said that the chaplain, who joined the department in February 2007 and earns $49,471 a year, was immediately suspended without pay.

“Additional steps, up to and including dismissal, will be pursued consistent with the findings of the Department of Investigation,” Dora Schriro, the commissioner of the Correction Department, said in a statement.

Stephen J. Morello, a Correction Department spokesman, later added that in light of the chaplain’s criminal background, Ms. Schriro “has directed a full review of the circumstances of his hiring.” He said that Imam Abu-Shahid had been regularly assigned to the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as the Tombs.

Officials said that Imam Abu-Shahid was in a group of men who were trapped by the police in the Finast Supermarket at 529 Lenox Avenue on Dec. 9, 1976, after a customer, Philip Crawford, 30, had been shot and killed during the robbery.

John Eligon and William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting