By Marty Graham
EL CAJON (Reuters) - The FBI is assisting in the murder investigation of an Iraqi-American mother who died after being severely beaten in her southern California home by a killer who left a threatening note that may suggest a hate crime, police said on Monday.
Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of five, was found unconscious in the dining room of her rented home in El Cajon, near San Diego, on Wednesday morning by her 17-year-old daughter, police said.
She was taken to a local trauma center with a severe head injury, El Cajon police chief Jim Redman told reporters on Monday. Doctors took her off life support and she died on Saturday afternoon.
Police have said they were investigating the killing as a possible hate crime because of a note found near Alawadi after the beating that Redman said was "threatening in nature," but authorities have stopped short of ruling out other scenarios.
If hate is confirmed as a motive in the killing, it would be the worst bias crime committed against Arabs or Muslims in years in the area, said Sadaf Hane, the civil rights director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
A friend of the family, Sura Alzaidy, told the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper the note found near Alawadi read: "Go back to your own country. You're a terrorist."
The family had previously received a similar note earlier this month, but dismissed it and did not report it to authorities, police said.
Alzaidy has described Alawadi as a "respectful, modest" Muslim woman who wore the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, as an expression of her faith, according to the Union Tribune.
"If this is indeed a hate crime, I would assume that that (her headscarf) made her a target," Hane said. "It would have easily labeled her as a Muslim woman."
El Cajon police spokesman Lieutenant Mark Coit said hate-related violence was rare in the area, and no such violent crimes were recorded in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks when anti-Muslim sentiment was reported in other parts of the country.
"We haven't had any problems like this at all," Coit said.
"AN ABSOLUTELY BRUTAL BEATING"
Redman, who described the killing as an isolated incident, said there were no suspects yet but that a window was broken in the home. Alawadi's children are ages 7 to 17.
"We recognize that this is somewhat of a sensitive case," Redman said. "We want the public to know that hate crimes are just part of the investigation."
El Cajon and nearby areas are home to some 50,000 to 60,000 immigrants and refugees of Middle Eastern descent, Redman said, but has not seen violent hate crimes in the past.
Hane said her group had seen a spike in incidents of civil rights abuses and bias crimes in the San Diego area in recent years, mostly involving workplace disputes, but no serious violence.
"This happened in our backyards. It's just shocking that something this atrocious happened this close to home," she said, describing the incident as a tragedy regardless of whether it is determined to have been motivated by hate.
Shahina Sial, the landlord of the rented home in El Cajon where Alawadi's family lived, said the family had only lived at the property for a few weeks, after moving back to San Diego County from Michigan.
Sial said Alawadi's husband works as a contractor for the U.S. military. Redman said that he was on disability.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State condemned the incident as "an absolutely brutal beating."
"The United States has no tolerance for wanton acts of violence like this," Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing in Washington, D.C. "Our heartfelt condolences go out to the family and the friends of Shaima Alawadi."
A Facebook group "One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi" has garnered nearly 4,500 members, and encourages members to wear a headscarf and post a picture to the group.
"There should not be an outfit that screams 'kill me!' Hoodie or hijab, this needs to stop," the group description said, referring to the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, that has sparked public outrage. Martin was reported to have been wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was shot.
(Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)