CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A 46-year old man was arrested and charged in the fatal shooting of three students at a quiet condominium complex near the University of North Carolina campus, the police said Wednesday, in what may have been a lethal escalation of a neighborhood parking dispute.
The three victims, one man and two women, were Muslims of Arab descent, and photos on Facebook show the two women wearing head scarves, leading to speculation on Twitter and Facebook, much of it with the hashtag muslimlivesmatter, that the killings might have been a hate crime.
But a statement released by the Chapel Hill Police Department said, “Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” adding that the man arrested, Craig Stephen Hicks, was “cooperating with investigators.”
The Chapel Hill police chief, Chris Blue, however, acknowledged the speculation about a possible hate crime.
“We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated,” Blue said in a statement, “and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case.”
The dead included a newlywed couple, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
The university said that Barakat was a second-year student in the graduate school of dentistry and his wife planned to enroll there in the fall, and that Razan Abu-Salha was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University.
Hicks lived in a ground-floor unit in the two-story condominium complex, tucked into the woods on Summerwalk Circle, about a mile and a half east of the main University of North Carolina campus. It appeared that Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha lived in a second-floor unit in the same building.
The police said they responded to a report of shots fired in the area of Summerwalk Circle at 5:11 p.m. Tuesday, but they did not specify where the bodies were found. Hicks was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, and according to news reports, appeared in court in Durham on Wednesday morning.
The Associated Press reported that state Chief District Judge Marcia H. Morey ordered Hicks, in shackles and wearing an orange jumpsuit, to be held without bond.
On Hicks’ Facebook page, he describes himself as a former auto parts dealer who has studied to be a paralegal, and he appears to be an ardent critic of religion. He expressed support for groups like Atheists for Equality, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Last month, he posted a photo that says, “Praying is pointless, useless, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy; just like the imaginary god you pray to.”
He also posted a photo of what he said was his .38-caliber, five-shot revolver.
The news of the killings spread quickly through the Muslim community worldwide, with many expressing grief and outrage.
The Facebook pages of Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha showed that they were married Dec. 27, and that he was active in using his dental skills for charitable work. A website with him narrating a video says he and other dental students planned to go to Turkey this summer to provide dental care to refugees from the civil war in Syria. His most recent Facebook post, from Jan. 29, says, “Tonight we provided free dental supplies and food to over 75 homeless people in downtown Durham!”
Friends and family members created a Facebook page, Our Three Winners, to share memories and photos of the slain students.
Several of the Facebook posts showed images of Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha at their wedding. Others highlighted Razan Abu-Salha’s artistic talents, noting that she had won an award from North Carolina State University for capturing 3-D abstract model-making with time-lapse video.
“It sorrows us all to see what has happened here today,” the creators of the page wrote, adding, “Their faith meant a lot to them, and it is in fact what helps us all feel at peace with the tragedy of their murder.”
Under the Twitter hashtag muslimlivesmatter - a social media tag reminiscent of the BlackLivesMatter tag after the killings of African-Americans at the hands of the police - many friends and supporters paid tribute to the trio and raised concern about the safety of Muslims in the United States, an issue also raised by the head of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.
“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,” the national executive director, Nihad Awad, said. “Our heartfelt condolences go to the families and loved ones of the victims and to the local community.”
The University of North Carolina issued a statement saying that it was “sensitive to the impact an incident of this nature has on campus and in the community” and would make counseling available to students.
“We understand you want to know the facts as quickly as possible,” the university wrote in the statement. But “we must respect the job our Chapel Hill police have as they investigate this crime.”
The chancellor of the university, Carol L. Folt, was expected to make a statement Wednesday.