A man has been arrested and charged with fatally shooting three students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, local police and school officials said.
While police said the shooting on Tuesday evening appears to have been motivated by a long-running parking dispute among neighbors, family members have characterized the shootings as a “hate crime” and a civil rights group has called for an investigation into possible anti-Muslim bias. All three of the students were Muslims.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the incident, according to a statement on the school's alert website. He is being held at the Durham County Jail, and appeared briefly in court Wednesday morning.
Around 5:15 p.m. local time on Tuesday police responded to a report of gunshots. They found three people who were pronounced dead at the scene. The victims were named as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
"It was execution style, a bullet in every head," Mohammad Abu-Salha, father of the two sisters, told the Charlotte Observer. "This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far."
Haya Barakat, relative of Deah, shared similar sentiment on Twitter. “My cousin, his wife and sister in law were murdered for being Muslim. Someone tell me racism/hate crimes don’t exist,” she wrote.
In a statement from Chapel Hill police, Chief Chris Blue said, "We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated, and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case."
Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at nearby Duke University, issued a statement calling for people not to jump to conclusions over the motive for the killings.
"This may or may not be a hate crime — there is evidence in either direction — but saying either this way or that way will only be unhelpful and will increase tension that exists," Antepli said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
Ripley Rand, U.S. district attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said at the conference that, contrary to speculation on social media, nothing points to any organized "campaign" against Muslims.
“Based on all our information in our office, the events are not part of a tageted campaign against Muslims in North Carolina or anything other than an individual event that occured," Rand said.
In his court appearance, Hicks — in an orange jumpsuit and shackles — spoke only to answer that he understood the charges and to confirm parts of an indigency affidavit he had filled out. District Judge Marcia Morey said Hicks would be appointed a public defender, and scheduled a probable cause hearing for March 4. Hicks will be held without bond.
Police said that Hicks was cooperating, and that their preliminary investigation showed the parking dispute was the motive.
Hicks' Facebook profile picture reads “Atheists for Equality,” and he frequently posted quotes critical of religion. On Jan. 20 he posted a photo of a .38-caliber revolver that he said was loaded and belonged to him.
“Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader,” the post said.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) advocacy group called for an examination into the motives of the killings.
“Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case,” CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement.
Barakat was a second-year dental student at UNC, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha was scheduled to begin dental studies in the fall.
Both had graduated from North Carolina State University, school spokesman Mick Kulikowski said. Barakat graduated with a business administration degree in the spring of 2013. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha graduated in December with a biological sciences degree.
Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha was a freshman design major who had started classes last fall, Kulikowski said.
A Facebook page honoring the victims and titled “Our Three Winners” was created early Wednesday, featuring photos of Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha’s recent wedding.
“This page is intended to facilitate communication and will hopefully carry on their legacy of service, great character and joy for life,” it read.
Al Jazeera and wire services