On October 21, Samantha Woll, the 40-year-old president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Detroit Synagogue, was found stabbed to death in front of her home in the city’s Lafayette Park neighborhood. A mere two days later, Detroit’s police chief, James White, said that the police were “confident” that Woll’s murder didn’t seem to be a hate crime.
Why “confident”? Given that the prominently Jewish Woll was murdered amid a nationwide explosion of anti-Semitic violence following Hamas’s October 7 pogrom in Israel, one might assume that White had slam-dunk evidence ruling out Jew-hatred.
But if he did, he wasn’t sharing it. “Right now, the evidence doesn’t take us there,” he said. “When we talk about hate crimes, there are certain tracks they take. We’re confident that we don’t have any indication of that at this point.”
In times of widespread unrest, it’s reckless to speculate about unsolved crimes. I don’t know who killed Samantha Woll or why. And I hope, for the sake of the Jews and the state of our country, that White is correct. But his logic isn’t impressive.
Absence of evidence, as Carl Sagan said, isn’t evidence of absence. If the police don’t see the “tracks” of a hate crime, it doesn’t mean a hate crime can be ruled out. It could mean that they’ve missed the tracks or that this is a hate crime that just happens not to bear the telltale signs.
It gets worse. White said that investigators had a “few persons of interest” and were working on a “number of different theories.” At the same time, however, he noted, “we believe the motivation is very different than a hate crime.” So without knowing who killed Samantha Woll or the killer’s motivation, police were confident it wasn’t an anti-Semitic event. It’s the one theory they were somehow able to rule out.
That was almost ten days ago, and here’s what we’ve learned since: Nothing. The police still have no suspect and have released no additional information. Whether they’re still confident that Woll’s murder wasn’t a hate crime is, therefore, anyone’s guess. But if their alternate theories were attached to the individuals White described as “persons of interest,” the ongoing failure to name an actual suspect doesn’t exactly reassure.
And reassure is what the Detroit police were trying to do. That’s why White said—again, only 48 hours after Woll’s murder—“We believe that there are no other groups or anyone else at risk. We believe this incident was not motivated by anti-Semitism and this suspect acted alone.”
We already know that White is wrong about people being at risk in his state. According to the local office of the Anti-Defamation League, there were 44 reported anti-Semitic incidents in Michigan between October 7 and October 23. During the same stretch of time last year, there were 12.
As for White’s claim about the killing of Woll, it’s possible we’ll never find out the truth. That happens a lot these days. Just as there are “certain tracks” that indicate hate crimes, there are recognizable patterns to mysteries that are destined to go unsolved. One sign is an unsettling combination of vagueness and confidence in the initial statements of public officials. Another is that the story disappears. There hasn’t been a major media story on Samantha Woll’s murder in days. Nothing on the bloody killing of a young Jewish leader during a historic wave of anti-Semitic rage in America. Once the police declared no hate crime, the press moved on to the next case. Let’s hope there’s a break in the case before Woll’s killer does the same.