Chapel Hill shooting: Police believe murder may have been over a neighbourhood parking dispute
Updated about an hour agoThu 12 Feb 2015, 6:18am
Police say a gunman charged with killing three young Muslims in North Carolina may have done so over a parking dispute.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who had posted anti-religious messages on Facebook, was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder near the University of North Carolina campus.
The victims were newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a University of North Carolina dental student, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Yusor's sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
All were involved in humanitarian aid programs.
The father of the two women, Mohammad Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist in Clayton, told the News & Observer that his daughters wore Muslim headscarves and that the killings bore signs of a hate crime based on religion and culture.
"It was execution style, a bullet in every head," Mr Abu-Salha told the Raleigh, North Carolina-based newspaper.
"This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime.
"This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far."
But police said a preliminary investigation indicated the motive was an ongoing neighbourhood dispute over parking.
They said Hicks turned himself in and was cooperating with police.
"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," Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue said in a statement.
On Facebook, Hicks' profile picture reads "Atheists for Equality" and he has frequently posted quotes critical of religion.
The page showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including one calling himself an "anti-theist" saying he has a "conscientious objection to religion" and others memes denouncing Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam.
On January 20, he posted a photo of a .38-caliber revolver that he said was loaded and belonged to him.
"Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader," the post said.
One post read: "I'm not an atheist because I'm ignorant of the reality of religious scripture. I'm an atheist because religious scripture is ignorant of reality."
"Given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I'd say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it," he posted under the religious beliefs tab.
Victims praised for humanitarian work
Photos of the three victims circulated on social media, including recent wedding pictures of Barakat and Abu-Salha.
Reports said Barakat was a second-year student in dentistry while his wife was planning to begin her dental studies in the fall.
Razan Abu-Salha was a student at North Carolina State University, according to the UNC university newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel.
A Facebook community - Our Three Winners - has been set up for posts about the three students.
"Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord," the site's creators said.
"They have set an example in life and in death."
The site features a photo of the three smiling at what appears to be a graduation ceremony.
Friends described the victims as being passionate about their humanitarian work.
The newlywed couple recently travelled to Turkey to provide free fillings, root canals, and oral hygiene instruction to Syrian refugee children.
Abu-Salha was involved with making multimedia art to spread positive messages about being Muslim American.
Mr Barakat's brother Farris mourned the deaths, writing "it doesn't make sense" on his own Facebook page.
"Please pray for them, their friends, and the family," Farris Barakat wrote.
"I haven't even begun to fully comprehend what has happened.
"But I know for sure those three together have done so much we are all proud of."
In a statement posted to the town of Chapel Hill website, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said: "We do not know whether anti-Muslim bias played a role in this crime, but I do recognise the fear that members of our community may feel. Chapel Hill is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter."
Hicks appeared briefly before Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey who ordered him held without bond pending a probable cause hearing set for March 4.