CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A sudden, shocking spasm of violence near campus of the University of North Carolina here was followed quickly by alarm and debate about why three Muslims were allegedly gunned down by a neighbor and what role, if any, religion may have played.
Police on Wednesday said that initial indications suggested the shooting stemmed from “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” an assertion that was echoed by the suspected shooter’s wife. But relatives of the victims insisted that the incident should be viewed as a hate crime, while the fact that three Muslims were killed in a single shooting drew international attention to a relatively quiet college town.
The three victims were identified by police and school officials in the early hours of Wednesday morning. They were all young adults with ties to universities in the region, two of whom had gotten married just six weeks earlier: Deah Barakat, 23, was a second-year student at the University of North Carolina’s School of Dentistry; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, was set to enroll there in the fall. The third victim was her 19-year-old sister, Razan, a student at nearby North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
“They were angels, just wonderful, beautiful people,” Ayoub Ouederni, vice president of the UNC Muslim Student Association, said Wednesday. “They were all-American kids, just ordinary kids.”
Also early Wednesday morning, police said they had arrested and charged Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, with three counts of murder. Hicks turned himself in to the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in nearby Pittsboro after the shooting.
The shooting deaths of three Muslims prompted concerns that the violence was motivated by their religion, and leading Muslim civil rights advocates called for police to address that possible explanation. But the Chapel Hill Police Department said it appeared, at least initially, that the shooting centered on a parking argument, while also promising to see if religion was a factor in the killings.
“Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act,” Chris Blue, the Chapel Hill police chief, said in a statement. “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.”
Family members of the victims disputed the idea that it was simply an argument involving parking. The father of two of the victims said Wednesday that one of his daughters had previously told her family about Hicks having a problem with the way she looked.
“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Mohammad Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist in nearby Clayton, N.C., told the News and Observer in Raleigh. “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.”
Barakat’s sister on Wednesday asked that authorities investigate the three “senseless and heinous murders” as a hate crime.
The shooting appeared to be an isolated incident, not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims, Ripley Rand, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said Wednesday.
In a news conference held Wednesday, Hicks’s wife insisted that the shooting was only due to parking arguments and not to any bigotry.
“I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or victims faith, but in fact was related to the long-standing parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors,” Karen Hicks said. She later added: “We were married for seven years, and that is one thing that I do know about him.”
She said that Hicks had been attending school full-time and was due to graduate from a paralegal program in the area this spring.
An attorney for Karen Hicks said that the shooting highlighted the importance of improving access to mental health care, but would not comment on whether Hicks had a history of mental-health issues. Another of her attorneys said that Hicks had a concealed weapons permit.
As word of the shooting spread on Tuesday night and into Wednesday, so did alarm at other possible reasons. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter became a common sight on Twitter as users expressed belief and sorrow at the possibility that the crime was religiously motivated as well as frustrations with what they saw as the media’s failure thoroughly report what had happened.
Ouederni, vice president of the UNC Muslim Student Association, said relations between Muslims and other Americans in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area had been very good.
“The reason everybody is so surprised is that it came out of nowhere,” Ouederni said. “The community has co-existed peacefully for decades here. There have never been frictions. This just came out of the blue.”
He said there had been “increasing Islamophobia in America” because of the rise of the Islamic State, but he said he had seen no evidence of that in North Carolina.
“I don’t think it plays a significant part in our relations,” he said. “They are not us, and we are not them. We lost Muslims last night, but we also lost three great Americans.”
Leaders from UNC, N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina Central University spoke at a news conference Wednesday evening on the UNC campus and stressed that it was too soon to know whether the students were victim of a hate crime.
Imam Abdullah Antepli, a Duke University Islamic leader, said he had “full trust” that law enforcement officials would determine the killer’s motives. But asked if tensions had been higher recently, he said, “Absolutely.”
“This incident immediately revealed the vulnerability of the Muslim community and the image and reputation of Islam as a religion and Muslims as people in American society at large,” he said. “There are several hundred Muslim families in the greater Chapel Hill area, including myself, and we didn’t send our children to school today. We wanted to know what was going on.”
It was logical for some people to hear about the shootings and wonder if recent news involving the Islamic State — including the deaths of a Jordanian pilot and an American hostage — could lead to some sort of reprisal against Muslims, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I think it’s perfectly natural to guess that this is anti-Islamic,” Potok said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Not just because the three victims are Muslim, but because there has been so much terrible news in recent days about extremist Muslims.”
Potok said the SPLC had not found an increase in hate speech in the Chapel Hill area.
“If it is a hate crime, it would be pretty unexpected in Chapel Hill,” Jack Swanson, 25, a software developer, who lives across the parking lot from the building where the shooting took place. “This is a college town. It’s pretty open and accepting of everybody.”
Swanson and other residents of the complex where the shooting occurred described it as a quiet area, a stretch of tall pine trees surrounding small buildings that mostly house graduate students. “You always see people out walking their dogs and everybody’s always friendly,” he said.
“We’ve definitely never felt unsafe here,” said Mona Xiao, 24, a UNC medical student who lives in the complex.
People who lived there also said Wednesday that there was plenty of parking and said they could not imagine an argument over parking spaces. But Bakarat had complained several months ago about a neighbor who had been harassing him about these parking spaces.
“He said he came to the house with a gun on his hip in a holster,” Ali Heydary, a close friend of Bakarat’s, said Wednesday. “I thought they worked it out because I never heard anything else about it.”
Heydary said Barakat never suggested that the man was harassing him because of his religion, and Heydary said he had no evidence that Tuesday’s shootings were motivated by religion. But, he said, “I don’t think it was just over a parking space. No way. It had to be about something more.”
Police arrived at the complex on Summerwalk Circle, not far from the UNC campus, on shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday in response to reports of gunfire.
“I just heard gunshots,” a woman who called 911 on Tuesday told the dispatcher in a recording released Wednesday. She said she heard between five and 10 gunshots, adding: “I heard kids screaming.”
It sounded like a car backfiring “maybe seven or eight times,” said Ray Antonelli, 25, a medical student at UNC, who was visiting Xiao, his girlfriend, when he heard the sounds. A short time later, he said police armed with rifles had swarmed the parking lot as sirens blared through the neighborhood.
All three victims were pronounced dead at the scene.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said police were working “to determine whether hate was a motivating factor” in the shooting.
“All we know for certain at this time is that it was a senseless and tragic act surrounding a longstanding dispute…We do not know whether anti-Muslim bias played a role in this crime, but I do recognize the fear that members of our community may feel,” he said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Chapel Hill is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter.”
Hicks made a brief court appearance on Wednesday morning, saying he understood the charges, according to the Associated Press. His probable cause hearing was set for March 4, and he is being held without bond.
“Such an act of violence goes against the very fiber of our community and society,” Carol L. Folt, chancellor of UNC, wrote in a message to students Wednesday. “It also creates a sense of vulnerability for all of us, especially members of the Muslim community. I am in touch with the Muslim community and students and will continue to be in conversation with them.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations called for police to address the speculation about Hicks’s motive, pointing in part to the religious attire of the Mohammad sisters and noting that in photographs circulating online, both were wearing Islamic headscarves.
“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,” Nihad Awad, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
Other voices sought to tamp down any speculation. These “devastating murders may or may not be a hate crime,” Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at Duke University, posted on Facebook. He cited Hicks’s “history of conflict with the victims over parking space and other issues” and urged caution until more information is known.
The larger region had recently been the nexus of a debate involving the Muslim call to prayer, which Duke University had planned to broadcast from a chapel tower before reversing course.
As the campus began mourning and prepared for a vigil Wednesday night, details began to emerge about the three victims, painting a picture of young lives abruptly cut short.
The young couple killed in the shooting were married in late December, a little more than six weeks ago, she had posted on Facebook. On Monday, she changed her profile picture to show her dancing with her father at the wedding.
Barakat had recently posted about providing free dental supplies and food to dozens of homeless people in Durham, something he had done twice in recent months, buying toothpaste, brushes, floss and mouthwash that he put into individual bags for each homeless person.
“He spent all his money to do that,” Heydary said. “I don’t even have words for that.”
Bakarat, whose family is of Syrian descent, had also planned to bring dental supplies to help Syrian refugees that had fled to Turkey, Heydary said. Bakarat had planned to go this summer; his wife had gone to deliver dental supplies to a Turkish town near the border last year. “She was just as passionate as he was,” Heydary said.
Heydary said he and Bakarat were raising money to purchase dental equipment to help these refugees and had raised about $15,000 in donations by Tuesday. That number had topped $120,000 by Wednesday evening.
Attention turned Wednesday to the social media profile of Hicks, the alleged shooter, to see what clues could be gleaned from his online presence.
He had frequently shared links about atheism on what appeared to be his Facebook page. One such post reads: “People say nothing can solve the Middle East problem, not mediation, not arms, not financial aid. I say there is something. Atheism.”
Another post shared three weeks before the shooting depicted a loaded revolver, tucked in its holster, alongside five extra rounds.
Sullivan reported from Chapel Hill, N.C. Berman and Kaplan reported from Washington.
[This post has been updated repeatedly with new information.]