A mysterious murder: An ISIS wannabe and the case of the generic burning Buddhas

Journalists need to face this basic fact: It's hard to cover the Islamic State and its victims without talking about religion. This is especially true when a story involves a convert to ISIS and its radicalized form of Islam and the convert's story in set in a neighborhood in the American Bible Belt. 

Consider the following short item from The Charlotte Observer that caught the eye of a GetReligion reader. It's a tragic story about an ISIS convert, his family and his victim and it's easy to sense that readers are not getting all of the details.

For example, try to figure out the timeline of the tragic events in this report. Here's the top:

Prosecutors announced ... that they will seek the death penalty against a Burke County teen and ISIS supporter accused of robbing and killing his neighbor to get an assault rifle so he could commit mass murder.
Justin Nojan Sullivan, 19, was arrested last June and is accused of plotting to kill up to 1,000 people in support of ISIS, an Islamic terrorist organization. Court documents unsealed last month link him directly to the previously unsolved 2014 murder of John Bailey Clark, 74, who lived down the street from Sullivan and his parents on Carswell Road in Morganton.
Court documents said Sullivan planned to use the money he stole from Clark to buy the rifle. Clark was shot several times in the head. Deputies found him in a shallow grave on his property.

So there was an unsolved murder in 2014. Then Sullivan is arrested in June of 2015. What linked the young man to the earlier murder?

At this point, the story adds another rather fascinating date to the timeline.

The investigation started after a 911 call in April 2015 from Sullivan’s parents who said their son was pouring gasoline over their religious items.
“I don’t know if it’s ISIS or what, but he is destroying Buddhas and figurines and stuff,” his stepfather said, according to earlier documents. “We’re afraid to leave the house.”
The investigation included using an undercover officer to connect with Sullivan and learn about his intent. According to court documents, Sullivan referred to himself as “The Mujahid,” or a guerrilla warrior in defense of Allah and Islam.

Believe it or not, that's the end of the story.

That's all we know, other than some background about Sullivan converting to Islam and then being drawn into the ISIS orbit the usual way -- through online videos of beheadings and digital calls for sympathizers to strike against America and other nations in the global coalition against the Islamic State

You can guess some of the questions raised by the GetReligion reader. The reader, you see, is interested in the mysterious religious details.

Is the family Buddhist? The stepfather's words are rather mysterious. What does "figurines and stuff" mean?

If the son had converted to Islam, it is rather easy to assume that there would have been a family conflict over the presence of religious statues -- idols from his perspective -- in the home. But the story suggests that the young man converted to Islam the previous year, before the murder of the older man.

Wait. The parents were unaware of this conversion until he started burning "stuff"? Did the young man practice his faith? Was he part of any local Muslim congregation? Was he, literally, an army of one? In what context did the undercover agent interact with Sullivan? In person? Online? There are so many logical questions to ask.

Also, was there no previous investigation into the death of Clark? Did the older man just vanish and no one in the neighborhood noticed, well, a grave in his backyard?

Lots of strangeness. Journalists reading this short report will notice, of course, that it contains no human voices -- just the voices speaking in the court documents.

So who is afraid of the religion elements of this story, the Observer or the legal authorities?

I could not believe that this was the extent of the newspaper's reporting on this case. In fact, an earlier report does mention a few other details:

Neighbors say Eleanor Sullivan, a native of the Philippines, is Justin’s mother and that Rich Sullivan, a retired Marine, is the teen’s stepfather. The family of three moved to Rose Carswell Road about three years ago. The Sullivans are considered outgoing, sharing vegetables from their garden and talking often with neighbors.
Justin Sullivan, though, was described as a socially awkward loner, who stayed inside except to walk the family’s beagle. Neighbors said he often wore hooded sweatshirts even during the worst of the summer heat.

So the mother is, or was, a Buddhist? How about her son? Or did the family just happen to collect statues of the Buddha and other generic "stuff"? Also, these friendly, vegetable-sharing Southern neighbors knew nothing about the son's conversion to Islam? No one saw or heard anything?

It would appear that the family's religious history is an important part of the story. You think?

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