By Marty Graham
EL CAJON, California (Reuters) - An Iraqi-American man accused of beating his wife to death in their California home, in a high-profile killing first investigated as a possible anti-Muslim hate crime, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to murdering her.
Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of five, was found bludgeoned in her home in March in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, home to a large Arab-American population, and died of her injuries several days later.
A threatening note found at the scene suggested Alawadi might have been targeted because of her ethnicity. In a sign of how closely the case was being watched, the U.S. State Department expressed condolences for her death, and Iraqi government officials attended her funeral in Iraq.
A friend of the family, Sura Alzaidy, told the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper at the time that the note found near Alawadi read: "Go back to your own country. You're a terrorist."
Police at the time said they were considering hate as a motive, but warned against definitively drawing such a conclusion. Court papers filed in the case later painted a portrait of a family in turmoil.
"The El Cajon Police Department spent countless hours trying to figure out if it was a hate crime or a domestic violence murder," Deputy District Attorney Kurt Mechals said outside the court.
Kassim Alhimidi, 48, entered his plea by closed-circuit television from jail, showing little emotion during the brief proceeding. He was ordered held without bail by a San Diego Superior Court judge at least until a hearing next week.
Friends and family members were in court for the proceedings and the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Fatima, left in tears.
"The family, like everyone else, wants to make sure there is justice for their mother, their sister," Mechals said.
Speaking to reporters following the hearing, family friend Qasim Alasari said that he, like many others in the large Iraqi community of eastern San Diego County, was surprised when Alhimidi was arrested.
"He loved her. He loved her so much," Alasari said.
According to a search warrant affidavit filed by police in April, a relative of Alawadi told detectives that she had been planning on divorcing her husband and moving to Texas. Divorce papers were found in her car.
Further complicating the troubled emerging portrait of the family were indications that daughter Fatima Alhimidi had felt pressure to marry her cousin against her will. It was Fatima who found her mother unconscious and bleeding after the attack, struck at least six times by a heavy object.
The daughter told police at the time that she heard her mother squeal, followed by the sound of breaking glass, which she took to be her mother dropping a plate. Ten minutes later, she said she discovered her mother on the floor, and called 911.
Alawadi arrived in the United States in 1993. She was buried in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, roughly 100 miles south of Iraq's capital, Baghdad.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Walsh)