CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Police have arrested a 46-year-old man in the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill Tuesday evening.
Craig Stephen Hicks was charged with three counts of first-degree murder after he drove himself over to Chatham County immediately after the shootings and surrendered to deputies in Pittsboro.
The dead have been identified as: Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.
Sources told ABC11 they were each shot in the head. Officers were first alerted at 5:11 p.m. Tuesday to a call of shots fired in the 200 block of Summerwalk Circle in the Finley Forest Condominiums - east of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Campus. The complex is home to many UNC graduate students.
A caller to 911 described hearing as many as eight shots and the sound of screaming.
Chapel Hill police said Wednesday that Hicks was cooperating with investigators and the initial investigation shows the shooting was motivated by an ongoing dispute over parking.
"Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act. 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. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of these young people who lost their lives so needlessly," said Chief Chris Blue of the Chapel Hill Police Department.
"The Chapel Hill Police Department has requested the assistance of the FBI to process evidence in a triple homicide investigation. It is standard practice for our state and local law enforcement partners to enlist the expertise and resources of the FBI as needed," said an FBI spokesperson in a statement.
Wife speaks to the media
Hicks' wife Karen spoke to reporters at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. She said the shooting came as a "complete shock" and she expressed her "deepest sympathy and condolences" to the victim's families.
Hicks and her attorney stressed that they do not believe the shooting was a hate crime.
"This incident had nothing to do with religion or the victim's faiths," said Hicks.
She said her husband of seven years had been battling with the condominium owners association over parking issues.
"It has nothing to do with terrorism. It has nothing to do with anything but the mundane issue of this man being frustrated day in and day out and not being able to park where he wanted to park," said attorney Rob Maitland. "These victims were there at the wrong time and wrong place."
Maitland said in his opinion the case highlights the importance of access to mental health care.
While family members said the Barakats had problems with their next-door neighbor Hicks in the past, ABC11 checked with Chapel Hill police who said they had not been contacted about any incidents involving Hicks at the complex.
However, Deah's former roommate Iman Ahmad told ABC11 that during the year he lived at Finley Forest they had several run-ins with Hicks. He said Hicks would come over and tell them they couldn't use more than one visitor parking spot at a time.
"We'd have friends over so obviously they would park in the visitor parking spot," said Ahmad. "So he would come to our place. I'm not sure if he would go to any other person's place, I have no idea actually. And he would come to our place and be like you guys need to move your cars, blah, blah, blah and he'd have a gun on his hip."
Ahmad described a more recent incident involving Barakat's wife Yusor and her mother. He said the two women were doing some remodeling to their apartment one day when Hicks approached them.
"He came and talked to her and said like you guys need to stop doing this, with the gun on his hip again," said Ahmad.
The women's father - Clayton psychiatrist Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha - told ABC11 Wednesday that he doesn't believe the shooting was a simple dispute between neighbors. He said the fact that each victim was shot in the head points to a hate crime and that his daughter had complained to him about Hicks.
"She said we feel this man hates us for who we are and how we look," said Abu-Salha. "When the police tell you that the three of them were shot in the head in a very small space - no struggle, no defense - that's execution."
The family of Deah Barakat also spoke to the media at a news conference Wednesday and asked that the case be investigated as a hate crime.
"We are crying tears of unimaginable pain over the execution-style murders of my brother Deah, his wife Yusor, and her younger sister and best friend Razan," said Suzanne Barakat, Deah's sister.
"The biggest thing is asking for justice. If justice is served, that's really all we're asking for," said Deah's father, Namee Barakat
On his Facebook page, Hicks - who was a paralegal student at Durham Tech - describes himself as an "anti-theist" and posted statements condemning all religions. In one post, he asks "why radical Christians and radical Muslims are so opposed to each others' influence when they agree about so many ideological issues."
The statements prompted the Council on American Islamic Relations Wednesday to call on law enforcement to address a "possible bias motive" for the shootings.
"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," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.
While the shooting occurred in the federal Middle District of North Carolina, Thomas Walker - US Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina - which includes Raleigh - said he's taking a hard look at the case.
"Our Muslim Community has been an invaluable partner. They should know that the federal government is working closely with local authorities to determine why this occurred," he told ABC11.
US Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina Ripley Rand told reporters Wednesday that the preliminary investigation shows shootings were "not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims."
Hicks was being held without bond. He sat blank faced during a first appearance before a judge Wednesday morning and the charges against him were read. He was told he will be assigned a public defender and will have a probable cause hearing in March. State officials said he was moved from the Durham County jail to North Carolina's Central Prison. They did not say exactly why, but said it is not unusual in high-profile cases or cases involving mental issues.
After the hearing, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols spoke about the reaction on social media about the victims being Muslim.
"I've heard some things," he said. "I'm paying attention to the evidence in the case regarding decisions that I need to make and that our office, and law enforcement, will need to make going forward."
Deah Barakat was enrolled at the UNC School of dentistry. His wife had just completed her biology degree at NC State and planned to begin her dental studies at UNC this fall. They were recently married in December.
"This is a tremendous loss to the Carolina and NC State campuses, and my thoughts and prayers are with the families," said UNC Chancellor Carol Folt in a message to the campus.
NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson shared the sad news with his campus.
On behalf of the entire NC 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," he offered.
Razan was Yusor's sister. She attended NC State and was studying architecture and environmental design according to her Facebook page. She was visiting her sister at the time of the shooting. A spokesman at North Carolina State University said Abu-Salha was on the dean's list for the fall 2014 semester.
Barakat graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in business administration from NC State in May 2013. His wife graduated cum laude in December, school officials said.
The sisters were both graduates of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. Deah Barakat graduated from Broughton High School.
Friends and family said Deah and Yusor had raised thousands of dollars to travel to Turkey this summer to provide dental care to Syrian refuges.
In a fundraising video, Deah asks people to contribute to a trip for 10 dentists.
"These kids don't have access to the same health care as us," he says. "Their prolonged pain can easily be taken care of by what we do."
A Facebook page set up to remember the victims said funeral arrangements were pending. Called "Our Three Winners", it urges people to remember the "beautiful ways these three people have touched your lives."
"Please rely on each other and remember these beautiful souls in your happy thoughts. 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," it said.
A vigil at the Pit drew a crowd of thousands.
Slides center stage provided a snap shot into the characters of Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha and her sister, Razan.
Barakat was described as a brilliant and social second-year UNC dental student who loved basketball.
"I don't know what I'm going to do Saturday mornings when it's time for family breakfast, and today I've reached for my phone so many times to text him," said Farris Barakat, Deah's Brother.
Loved ones urging hundreds of mourners to make peace through the legacies each left behind.
"I want everyone to remember them please only in the good and not to cry when you hear their names but to laugh to laugh at how clumsy Deah was playing basketball, and how Yusor loved having pancakes for breakfast dinner and lunch and how Razan loved to read and she was so geeky, but so cute," said a friend of the victims.
There was a moment of silence before Wednesday evening's game between Virginia and NC State at PNC Arena to honor the shooting victims. Students also wore green ribbons in their honor.
NC State planned a vigil Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Brickyard. Another vigil is scheduled for Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at the East Carolina University's Student Memorial Garden.
Word of the shooting has drawn reaction from state leaders.
"I am saddened by the senseless acts that happened yesterday evening in Chapel Hill," said Gov. Pat McCrory. "My prayers are with the families and friends of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha."
"Last night's tragic events have left three dead and our community in mourning. My prayers are with their families. I have faith that law enforcement will assemble the facts and ensure that justice is carried out on behalf of those murdered," said Senator Richard Burr (R-NC).
"Susan and I join other North Carolinians and people across the nation in praying for the families of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha as they bear the pain of this terrible tragedy and the loss of three young lives," said Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC).
"This appalling act of violence has shaken our community's sense of peace and reminded us once again that we still face serious barriers to mutual acceptance. We must redouble our efforts to bridge the gaps of intolerance and hatred that divide our society," said U.S. Rep. David Price (D-NC)
"These deaths represent an incomprehensible loss. I believe that we can find strength by acknowledging the fear and outrage that this act instills, coming together to ask difficult questions, and lifting up all people in our community who are hurting," said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.