As students at Northwest High School were finishing up the last day of classes for the school year on Friday and preparing for a candlelight vigil at school to remember their classmates who were brutally gunned down 11 days ago Montgomery County Police investigators held a press conference to say that the two teens knew their killers and were asking anyone with information to come forward.
Captain Darren Francke, head of the Major Crimes Division of Montgomery County Police told reporters at Public Safety Headquarters that investigators now believe the shooting deaths of Shadi Najjar and Artem Ziberov was not a random act and the Northwest seniors were shot and killed by at least two people.
Capt. Francke said that his unit and the MCPD are aware of how much this incident has upset the community. “We know that [the community] has been very upset by this event. And they should be. This should not happen in Montgomery County. Our experience and what we’ve learned from the crime scene shows us that this was not a random event. We do not believe that this was a random event. We believe that the suspects and the victims knew each other. More importantly, we believe that there are people out there who have not come forward yet and given us information that they know about this case. It may be something small; it may be something as big as they witnessed something. We need them to come forward.”
The two students, 18-year-old Najjar and 17-year-old Ziberov, were shot and killed at about 10:45 pm on Monday, June 5 while sitting in Najjar’s Honda Civic on Gallery Court, a quiet cul-de-sac populated by single-family homes in Montgomery Village. The engine of the Honda was still running, and Najjar was sitting behind the wheel.
Francke said that the reward for anyone coming forward with information which helps police solve this double murder will be doubled to $20,000. “The family of Mr. Najjar is working on increasing the reward for anyone coming forward with information in the case. Right now it is at $10,000, by the end of the day we hope it will be up to $20,000,” said Francke.
“Imagine if this happened to your friend, to your loved one, to your family member. We can’t imagine what someone did to deserve this fate. We want to appeal to those out there that have information and talk to the Montgomery County Police. Do the safe thing and talk to the Montgomery County Police,” said Francke.
When asked by Germantown Pulse —after the press conference ended — if he had a specific message for students at Northwest High School Francke said, “Don’t believe what you see in the movies and the media about giving police information. Don’t believe what hear in music and music videos about snitching. Come to us with information. Montgomery County has a great track record of working with witnesses or all ages in keeping them safe. If you know something, you have to do the right thing and come forward.”
“I would say that do that safe thing, you have multiple shooters, multiple caliber weapons used, and a very violent act,” he told reporters. “I know that we can offer the resources and the caring and compassion to the people that have information. I don’t think the same could be said for the individuals who carried out this act.”
He said that there might be an aspect of fear which is stopping people from coming forward in this case. “I would hope not. I hope it is not indifference — that it is not ‘I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to have a part in this.’ We have seen cases before, in my three years as head of the Major Crimes Division, where there was indifference. That is not what Montgomery County residents expect of people that live here.”
“We know that kids talk amongst all kinds of platforms, Snapchat, texting, or over other platforms,” said Francke. “We believe that there is probably a good chance that someone at Northwest High School knows something that they should share. They should do the right thing. They should talk to their parents and share the information that is going to take multiple violent suspects into custody and make it safer for the residents of Montgomery County.”
During the press conference, Francke confirmed that investigators retrieved 30 shell casings at the scene and that multiple calibers used at the scene which indicates more than one shooter. While he would not confirm exactly how many different calibers were found, he said police are looking for “at least two” shooters.
He said that medical examiner had confirmed that one of the victims was shot 10 times and the other victim was shot four times. “The other rounds hit the vehicle and were shot into the air in the neighborhood.” He also confirmed that the audio recording from a security system at a neighboring house is accurate and an authentic recording of the double murder.
When asked if this might be related to recent gang activity, specifically MS-13, Francke said there was “nothing referencing MS-13,” however, later when Germantown Pulse pressed him on if might involve The Hit Squad, he just said he didn’t believe that MS-13 was involved.
The group that calls themselves the Hit Squad has been a sometimes violent group which has been involved in criminal activity in Montgomery Village and Germantown for some time. Police do believe that the Hit Squad meets the legal definition of a gang but in January Sgt. M. Fergus Sugrue, head of the MCPD Auto Theft Unit told the Germantown Pulse that MCPD has made a lot of arrests over the years for auto theft and theft-from-auto of individuals connected to that group, including a number of arrests in the 5th District. “In the last year, I have noticed that they have become more active,” Sugrue said in January.
In October 2016, Dominic Garrett, 22, was sentenced to twelve years behind bars after pleading guilty in Montgomery County for setting up his ex-girlfriend to be robbed. Prosecutors said Garrett is a member of the Hit Squad.
It had been reported that the teens had left Najjar’s home that night to go to the Damascus area to sell tickets to the Northwest graduation ceremony which was to take place later that morning. Francke’s confirmed that graduation tickets were found at the crime scene.
Francke did not comment on whether the teens actually sold the graduate tickets. “As we were working the crime scene — all of these cases are difficult for investigators — but as we were working the scene, we did find graduation tickets. By the time we found them, we knew that it was only a few hours until that graduation, and it changed the tenor of our mood. It changed a lot for us. We have kids and graduation days are supposed to be a fantastic day for them and symbolic moving on with their lives, and it really changed things for us.”
He said both families have been cooperating with the police. “Both families have been very cooperative with us. They are both very grief stricken over this. They are going through their minds and replaying the last month, six months, a year to try to give us information that we can track down that might lead to who is responsible for this,” said Francke.
Francke said that over 60 MCPD detectives and support and lab personnel have been working this case since the night of the shootings.
Northwest High School is planning a candlelight vigil for Artem Ziberov and Shadi Najjar tonight, Friday, June 16 on the football field at 7:00 pm.
Anyone in the community with information to contact the Major Crimes Division at 240.773.5070. Crime Solvers of Montgomery County is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for any information that leads to the arrest of the suspect(s). Tipsters can call Crime Solvers of Montgomery County toll-free at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).
Top: Captain Darren Francke flanked by Det. Lts. Sean Gagen and Nicholas Picerno at Public Safety Headquarters addressing the media on the double murder of two Northwest High School students.
Next: Capt. Darren Francke, commander of the Major Crimes Division of the Montgomery County Police Department.
Video: An audio recording of the shooting captured by a security system at a neighbor's house the night of the shooting. Courtesy MyMCMedia.
Next: Gallery Court in Montgomery Village the street where the teens were shot.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.