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.
Family members said the Barakats had problems with Hicks – who was their next door neighbor – in the past. ABC11 checked with Chapel Hill police who said they had not been contacted about any incidents involving Hicks at the complex in the past.
On his Facebook page, Hicks 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.
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.
While the shooting occurred in the federal Middle District of North Carolina, Thomas Walker – US Attorney for the Middle 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.
Hicks was being held in the Durham County jail 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.
After the hearing, Durham County District Attorney spoke about the reaction on social media about the victims being Muslim.
“I’ve heard somethings,” 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.