Believed by family to be a hate crime
The quiet North Carolina town of Chapel Hill was shaken Tuesday, Feb. 10 when a young Muslim family was found shot dead in their home, in what is being labeled by critics a “hate crime.”
Officers were called to the scene, after getting reports of gunshots around 5:11 pm at an apartment block on Summerwalk Circle, which largely houses academics and young professionals of Chapel Hill.
Police have named the victims as 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. They were found all shot in the head at the scene.
The gunman, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, is a next-door neighbor of the family and turned himself into authorities that same night. He has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the fatal shootings.
Police spokesman Lt. Joshua Mecimore said in a statement that a preliminary investigation indicated the crime was “motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”
Wearing a jail jumpsuit, Hicks made a brief appearance in a Durham County District Court on Wednesday morning where he asked for a public defender and spoke only to answer that he understood the charges and has been “cooperating with investigators.” He was denied bail, and informed that the next hearing would be held on March 4, according to News Observer.
District attorney Roger Echols said he could not discuss a motive, and the facts of the case are still under investigation. The shooting, however, appeared to be “an isolated incident.”
The suspect’s Facebook profile reads “Atheists for Equality,” and he frequently posted quotes and images that criticize all religions. Three weeks ago, Hicks posted a photo of a .38-caliber revolver that he said was loaded and belonged to him.
Another neighbor, Samantha Maness, said that Hicks frequently “complained about noise and parking, so I wasn’t extremely surprised.”
“Anytime that I saw him or saw interaction with him or friends or anyone in the parking lot or even myself, he was angry,” Maness continued. “He was very angry, anytime I saw him.”
The fatal shootings have sparked condemnation from a national Muslim civil liberties group, and triggered a social media uproar over allegations of anti-Muslim bias. People were commenting on the incident—“they were murdered, execution-style”—and posting pictures of the victims studying and playing basketball.
Barakat, a Syrian-American and a second-year dental student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Yusor Mohammad were married in late December. Yusor had been planning to start her own dental studies in Chapel Hill this fall.
Yusor’s 19-year-old sister, Razan Abu-Salha, ran a photography blog and was studying Architecture and Environmental Design at North Carolina State University.
All over Twitter, people compared the killings to recent massacre shootings in Paris, while others called on President Barack Obama and senior religious figures to condemn the attacks, using the hashtag, #ChapelHillShooting.
Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the two women’s father, said openly that he believed the shooting was actually based on the religion and culture of the victims. He remembered Hicks picking on his daughter Yusor and her husband “a couple times before.”
“This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime,” he said. “[The family] was uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”
Conversely, Hicks’ wife, Karen Diane Haggerty, told reporters that she was “simply shocked” by the killings and expressed “deepest sympathy to all the victims.”
“This incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith but was related to a longstanding parking dispute that my husband had with the neighbors,” she told reporters at her home.
She described Hicks as a “champion of individual rights” in many areas, including race and same-sex marriage, and thinks that “everyone is equal.”
On Feb. 10, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue called the shootings “senseless and tragic,” and the police’s “thoughts are with the families and friends of these young people who lost their lives so needlessly.”
“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,” Blue said.
National Executive Director of the Council of American Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad, called on authorities to determine whether religion was indeed a factor in the killings, as local politicians and police moved quickly to try to reassure the public.
“Our community has been rocked by a horrible crime with the shootings of three young people,” said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “I share strong feelings of outrage and shock with my fellow citizens and university students—as well as concerned people everywhere. 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.”
“Chapel Hill is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter,” he added.
(With reports from USA Today, The Independent)