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Questions surround motive in Muslim students' slayings

Family members of three Muslim students shot to death at a Chapel Hill condominium Tuesday evening want the slayings investigated as a hate crime. The suspected gunman's wife says she believes the alleged acts stemmed from longstanding issues over parking.

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The father of two Muslim women killed in a triple shooting at a condominium near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said Wednesday that he believes their deaths are hate crimes, despite beliefs by the suspected gunman's wife that the alleged acts stemmed from long-standing issues over parking.

The statements came as Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said he is not ruling out any possibility in the slayings of UNC dental student Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife of two months, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.

"All motives will be under investigation," Echols said.

Police were called shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday to Finley Forest condominiums on Summerwalk Circle in Durham County, where the victims were each found shot in the head.

Hours later, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of 270 Summerwalk Circle, surrendered to authorities in Chatham County and was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Police also said that their preliminary investigation points to a possible parking dispute. They said Hicks has been cooperating.

"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," Police Chief Chris Blue said. "Our thoughts are with the families and friends of these young people who lost their lives so needlessly."

Authorities have not commented further about the investigation.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Hicks was transferred from the Durham County jail to Central Prison in Raleigh for safekeeping. Authorities would not say why.

Suspect's wife 'completely shocked'

With attorneys by her side, Hicks' wife, Karen Hicks, said at a news conference Wednesday that she was "completely shocked" by the shootings and never had any indication that her husband could be responsible for the crimes of which he is accused.

"It is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims' faith but in fact was related to the long-standing parking disputes my husband had with the neighbors," she said.

A full-time paralegal student at Durham Technical Community College, Craig Hicks has public posts about atheism on his Facebook page. But Karen Hicks said he often championed social causes and had no issues with others' religions.

Her attorney, Robert Maitland, said the parking issue stemmed from a dispute with the homeowners' association over its parking regulations.

According to neighbors, the complex has one reserved space for each unit, and the parking situation can be confusing.

"It is a simple matter that has nothing to do with the religious faith of the victims," Maitland said. "It is a mundane issue of this man being frustrated day in and day out, and unfortunately, these victims were there at the wrong time at the wrong place."

Maitland, who represents only Karen Hicks, said he did not think the shooting had anything to do with Craig Hicks' particular relationship with the victims.

Dad says victims talked about 'hateful' neighbor

The father of the slain women, Mohammed Abu-Salha, however, said his older daughter told him several times that she was scared by a "condescending" neighbor who had come more than once to their doorstep with a gun in his waistband.

"They felt he was hateful, and she used that word," Mohammed Abu-Salha said. "She said, 'Daddy, we feel he hates us for who we are and how we look.' And our daughters dressed in the Muslim attire."

Barakat's sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, called on authorities to investigate "these senseless and heinous murders as a hate crime."

Both families are in disbelief and shock, they said.

"Six weeks ago, I cried tears of joy at my baby brother's wedding. Today, we are crying tears of unimaginable pain over the execution-style murders of my brother Deah, his bride, Yusor, and her younger sister and best friend, Razan," Suzanne Barakat said.

"I don't even know how to feel yet," Mohammed Abu-Salha said.

"They lived a clean life, never gave us a bad day," he added. "We raised them in our faith. We raised them to love their country and their people, and everybody’s heart is broken. Everybody. All walks of life. The whole city did not sleep last night."

He can't imagine how a parking dispute could have escalated to violence.

"If this is not hate, I don’t know what the police considers hate," he added.

911 callers reported five to 10 gunshots

According to two 911 calls released Wednesday afternoon, callers reported hearing multiple gunshots.

"I heard about eight shots go off in an apartment," one caller said. "About three girls – more than one girl screaming – and then there was nothing. Then I heard about three more shots go off."

"I heard screams," she added. "I heard it right when it was happening. I was walking right by it."

Social media rampant with speculation

The shootings have raised concerns on social media and in the Chapel Hill and area Muslim communities about the possibility that the dead were victims of anti-Muslim bias.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest civil advocacy group for Muslims, urged authorities to "quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive."

Ripley Rand, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, addressed the speculation at a news conference Wednesday with other law enforcement officials, stressing that the case appears to be an isolated event.

"Based on all the information that our office and law enforcement have at this time, the events of yesterday are not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims in North Carolina," Rand said.

Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at nearby Duke University, was also there. He called for people not to jump to conclusions over the motive for the killings.

"This may or may not be a hate crime, personal speaking, because there is evidence in either direction at this point," he said. But saying 'either this way or that way' will be only unhelpful, and it will increase the tension that already exists."

Victim's sister: 'They were gems of their communities'

At UNC-Chapel Hill, Deah Barakat was a second-year dental student, and Yusor Abu-Salha was scheduled to begin dental studies there in the fall.

Both had graduated from North Carolina State University – Barakat with a business administration degree in spring 2013 and his wife in December with a biological sciences degree.

Kindred spirits, according to family members, the two married in late December. Barakat was raising money to provide free dental care to students in Turkey. They were set to travel there this summer to treat Syrian refugees.

"They were gems of their communities and left a lasting impression on the people around them," Suzanne Barakat said. "They inspired us. They served as role models to the youth."

Her brother was well-known for his kindness, his lightheartedness and his love for basketball, she said.

Razan Abu-Salha was a sophomore studying architecture. She was a graduate of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh.

Suzanne Barakat described her as giving, creative, generous and a loyal friend.

A memorial page honoring the victims was started on Facebook early Wednesday, and multiple vigils and events honoring the three had been planned.
Thousands gathered at UNC Wednesday evening. N.C. State planned a moment of silence at Wednesday's men's basketball game against the University of Virginia. A vigil is also planned for Thursday evening.
"On behalf of the entire N.C. State community, I'd like to extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Abu-Salha," N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said in statement – one of many released by local and state leaders.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt called the shootings "a tremendous loss" for both universities.

"Such an act of violence goes against the very fiber of our community and society," she said. "It also creates a sense of vulnerability for all of us, especially members of the Muslim community."


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