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.Posted — Updated
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'
"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.
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."
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 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."
"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.
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.
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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