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Police probe death of first U.S. Muslim woman judge as suicide

Sheila Abdus-Salaam

NEW YORK - New York police are investigating the death of the United States' first female Muslim judge as a possible suicide, but lack important clues about how her body ended up in the Hudson River, a police source said on Thursday.

The body of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, a 65-year-old associate judge who served on New York's highest court, was found floating in the river off Manhattan's west side on Wednesday. An external examination found no signs of trauma and no indication of what caused her death.

"We have a long way to go," New York police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at a press conference on Thursday, referring to the investigation.

Abdus-Salaam was elected as a New York City judge in 1991. The Washington D.C. native was also the first African American woman to serve on the state's Court of Appeals, to which she was appointed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013.

In her more than 25 years on the bench, Abdus-Salaam became known for her liberal leanings, often favoring poor and vulnerable individuals over the powerful.

"She lived up to her reputation of being smart, principled, and rigorously fair," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who once argued a case before Abdus-Salaam, said in a statement.

Police are struggling to piece together a timeline of events between Tuesday morning, when the judge was last in contact with someone, and when her body was found, Boyce said.

Abdus-Salaam spent the weekend in New Jersey with her husband, who last heard from his wife on Monday evening, Boyce said. On Tuesday morning, Abdus-Salaam spoke to her assistant in what appeared to be the last contact she had with colleagues, family or friends.

Police have determined that the judge's metro card was last swiped on Monday evening at a subway stop in midtown Manhattan.

As police await details from a more thorough examination of Abdus-Salaam's body, they are interviewing relatives and others who knew her.

A police source said officers were working on the assumption that the judge took her own life, but Boyce declined to elaborate when asked about that at the news conference. Boyce did say that it did not appear she was taking anti-depressants or other medications, and that her death was "a surprise to everyone."

About three years ago, Abdus-Salaam's brother committed suicide, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified police sources. Her mother died last spring, the Times said.

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