When Ola Salem’s body was discovered in a park on Staten Island in October 2019, her friends and relatives were left grasping for an explanation.
Ms. Salem, 25, was known as a dedicated advocate at the domestic violence shelter for Muslim women and children where she volunteered, and suspicion in local media focused on her husband, with whom the police said she had a tumultuous relationship.
Her father offered another theory: Kabary Salem told The New York Times that his daughter had shared stories of being followed by someone on the highway.
But authorities now say that tip was a lie intended to misdirect investigators, and it was Mr. Salem who killed his daughter, dragged her body into Bloomingdale Park and covered it with branches. Mr. Salem, 52, appeared virtually in court this week to face a seven-count indictment, with charges including murder, strangulation and concealment of a human corpse.
He pleaded not guilty, court records show. A lawyer for Mr. Salem could not be reached for comment this week.
Officials said that despite Mr. Salem’s statements to reporters, he had been considered a suspect in his daughter’s death.
“Throughout the course of this tragic case, we had never lost hope that the alleged killer would be arrested and charged,” Michael E. McMahon, the Staten Island district attorney said in a statement. “We will continue to work tirelessly to hold this defendant accountable.”
The charges followed a yearlong investigation into a killing that perplexed many of those who knew Ms. Salem. Her friends said that they were rattled by the news of her father’s arrest.
Last year, on Oct. 23, Ms. Salem had been in Pennsylvania with her father, a former professional boxer who had competed at the Olympics, officials said.
Later that evening or early the next day, Mr. Salem strangled his daughter, according to the indictment. Officials said he then drove to Staten Island, dragged her body to Bloomingdale Park in the Prince’s Bay neighborhood and covered her with branches and leaves. Afterward, they said, he traveled back to Pennsylvania and later fled the country.
Key to the investigation was the discovery this year that Mr. Salem had rented a car from Avis on Oct. 22, a law enforcement official familiar with the case said.
Previously, Mr. Salem had told investigators that he had driven his daughter home to New York in their family car. Investigators also found his daughter’s phone in the family car, the official said, and Mr. Salem told them she had forgotten it when he dropped her off.
In reality, the official said, detectives discovered that Mr. Salem used the rental car to travel extensively on Staten Island, including a brief stop in the park near where his daughter’s body was found. He was arrested in Kuwait in December with the assistance of the State Department and Interpol and quarantined before being extradited back to New York.
Prosecutors did not provide a potential motive for the killing.
But relationships between Ms. Salem and close relatives appeared to have been fraught for some time.
At the time of her death, Ms. Salem’s family had an active order of protection against her, according to the law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Mr. Salem, who had also worked as a driver, was a boxer on Egypt’s Olympic team in 1992 and 1996. He was known as “The Egyptian Magician” and held a mixed reputation among fans and other fighters, gaining notoriety in 1999 when an opponent whom he had repeatedly head-butted during a match lost consciousness and died after brain surgery. He retired from the sport six years later.
On a now-defunct Instagram account, Mr. Salem posted a picture of himself and his daughter in March with the caption, “I miss you and love you rip my love.” After Ms. Salem’s death, Mr. Salem was quoted in a New York Times story saying that his daughter “always said somebody would follow her” when she was driving and that he hoped to receive clarity.
“I want to know what happened to her, what is the reason for that — but no one tells me — I am just waiting,” he said at the time. He is set to appear back in court on Feb. 5.
Members of Ms. Salem’s family declined to comment further when reached on Wednesday, saying they were still processing the news.
As a teenager, Ms. Salem, who grew up in Coney Island, was an active member of the Muslim American Society Youth Center in South Brooklyn. Friends said she enjoyed boxing like her father, led religious discussions at Kingsborough Community College on weekends and was known for her caring spirit and protective disposition at the Asiyah Women’s Center, a domestic violence shelter where she volunteered for night shifts.
Dania Darwish, the co-founder of the shelter and friend for more than a decade, said her stomach turns when she encounters reminders of her Ms. Salem’s death. She added that she hopes “justice is served.”
Ms. Darwish recalled the last days of Ramadan, when she and Ms. Salem would dance and sing, exchange laughs and envision their lives in the future. As she was opening the shelter in Brooklyn, Ms. Darwish said she reached out to Ms. Salem for help, knowing that her friend had a “way of making people feel safe” and comfortable.
“People would be so traumatized coming to us, and she just had this relaxed spirit and calming presence,” Ms. Darwish said. “She just made people immediately laugh at something even though they were having the worst days of their lives.”
Ms. Salem was known to be outspoken. When she was 17, she made headlines after a visit to Playland Park, an amusement park in Rye, N.Y., on a youth trip to mark the end of Ramadan. When Ms. Salem was told by employees she could not join her younger sister on a ride because of her hijab, she asked to speak with management.
The issue escalated, and a small melee broke out. “I said, ‘It’s not my headgear. It’s my religion,’” Ms. Salem told The Times.
For Ms. Darwish, the killing of her friend — who fiercely defended other women — remains a devastating loss.
“There are women who were experiencing domestic violence and left situations where they could’ve gotten murdered. She was the reason they felt safe enough to leave,” she said. “I wish our community did more to protect her in the way she protected them.”
Annie Correal contributed reporting, and Kitty Bennett contributed research.