By: Mike Brill – Staff Writer
A Chapel Hill, North Carolina, man was charged with the murder of three Muslim students earlier this month.
Craig Hicks, 46, is currently in jail, accused of shooting his three neighbors in the head, according to the Washington Post. Deah Barakat, 23, was a dental doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, was Barakat’s wife, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19, was her sister. The Abu-Salha sisters were undergraduates at North Carolina State University.
Chapel Hill police officers arrested Hicks at the scene. He was later charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of discharging a firearm in an occupied dwelling. First-degree murder carries a potential death penalty sentence in North Carolina.
Hicks and the three students resided in the same apartment complex. The police and Hicks’ wife, Karen Hicks, believe that the shooting occurred over a parking dispute. Hicks had confronted his neighbors in previous instances about parking in his parking space.
According to The Huffington Post, Hicks is known for being confrontational. He often threatened to have cars towed from the complex parking lot, and complained to neighbors about noise. Apartment complex residents describe his behavior as aggressive and harsh. They organized a meeting last year to speak with him about his behavior.
“I can say with absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with the religion of the victims’ faith, but it was related to a longstanding parking dispute,” Karen Hicks said.
The victims’ friends, family and other members of the Muslim-American community, however, believe the shooting was religiously motivate.
According to UNC’s Daily Tar Heel, Hicks, an atheist, is also known for being critical of religion. Hicks’ Facebook page includes many posts that take aggressive tones toward Christianity and Islam, and one picture of his revolver. He is a self-described anti-theist, someone who is an adamant opponent of religion.
“We have no doubt that the way they looked and the way they believed had something to do with this,” Mohammed Abu-Salha, father of the two female victims, said.
According to a Washington Post article from Feb. 14, Palestinian officials called Hicks “an American extremist and hateful racist.”
“The Chapel Hill Police Department is using all available resources to determine whether hate was a motivating factor,” said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.
The FBI and U.S. Justice Department are investigating the shooting alongside local police to determine if Hicks assaulted the students because of their Islamic faith.
Family members of the victims have created a Facebook page, named “Our Three Winners,” to remember the victims. Thousands attended a vigil on the UNC campus the day following the shooting.
A public funeral was held with over 5,500 attendees, according to The Guardian.
President Barack Obama, in response to the tragedy, addressed the topic of extremist violence last week.
“Many Muslim-Americans are worried and afraid,” Obama said. “I want to be as clear as I can be. As Americans – all faiths and backgrounds – we stand with you in your grief, and we offer our love and we offer our support.”