The killing of three promising students plunged two families and two universities into mourning Wednesday and sparked a worldwide social media outcry of “Muslim Lives Matter.”
Slain in the Tuesday night shooting were UNC-Chapel Hill dental student Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh. Police said the attack was preceded by a dispute about parking in the neighborhood of rented condominiums not far from UNC-Chapel Hill.
A neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, fled after the shooting but later turned himself in to a Chatham County sheriff’s deputy. He was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Hicks was moved to Central Prison for his safety, authorities said, and the FBI was called in to assist the Chapel Hill police on the case.
The deaths were a blow to both UNC and N.C. State University, where the three had studied as undergraduates. Late Wednesday, thousands of grieving students from around the Triangle huddled in the cold at the center of the UNC campus, gripping candles and fighting tears. They tried to make sense of the brutality, which had ended the lives of young people known for their service to others.
“These were students who wanted nothing more than to change the world, who basically thought the most important thing in life was helping people that were less fortunate than they were,” said UNC Chancellor Carol Folt. “And that is, of course, where we’re drawing our strength right now.”
The news spread fast on social media, where many didn’t believe the killer’s motive could be explained by an argument about parking. Relatives were quick to call the slayings of three American Muslims a hate crime. “I mean, who would kill somebody over a parking spot?” said Abdel Kader Barakat, a cousin of Deah Barakat.
The women’s father, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who has a psychiatry practice in Clayton, said regardless of what prompted the shooting Tuesday night, Hicks’ underlying animosity toward Barakat and Abu-Salha was based on their religion and culture.
“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Abu-Salha said. “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.”
Abu-Salha said his daughter who lived next door to Hicks wore a Muslim head scarf and told her family a week ago that she had “a hateful neighbor.”
“Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look,’” he said.
Barakat’s family held a news conference in Raleigh on Wednesday, urging people to celebrate the memories of the students. They also said authorities should treat the deaths as a hate crime.
“It all goes back to justice,” said Deah’s father, Namee Barakat. “We need justice.”
But Karen Hicks, the wife of Craig Hicks, said Wednesday that she does not think religious bigotry was behind her husband’s actions.
“I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighborhood regardless of their race, religion or creed,” Karen Hicks said in a statement.
Ripley Rand, the U.S. prosecutor for the Middle District, which includes Chapel Hill and Durham, said federal authorities had not launched a separate investigation of the crime. Rand said that from the early details of the Chapel Hill investigation, he did not think the killings were part of a targeted campaign against Muslims.
“This appears at this time to be an isolated incident,” Rand said.
Hicks appeared in Durham County District Court on Wednesday morning and asked for a public defender. The shooting took place in the Durham County part of Chapel Hill.
Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey told Hicks there would be a probable cause hearing on the charges on March 4 and sent him back to the county jail to be held without bail.
Chapel Hill police found all three victims dead inside the condominium where Barakat and Abu-Salha lived, after responding to a report of gunshots on Summerwalk Circle at 5:11 p.m. Tuesday. A woman who called 911 described hearing gunshots as she walked through the complex of apartments and condominiums adjacent to the Friday Center.
“I heard about eight shots go off in an apartment – I don’t know the number – about three girls, more than one girl, screaming, and then there was nothing,” the unidentified caller said. “And then I heard about three more shots go off.”
At a community center in the neighborhood, family members waited for word. None of the three had answered calls for hours, but relatives had used a “find my phone” app to trace Barakat’s phone to the condo.
As news of Tuesday’s killings spread through the international Muslim community, many turned to Facebook and Twitter to share their grief. A Facebook community – Our Three Winners ( nando.com/xl) – was started early Wednesday to share news and memories of the students.
“Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord,” the community’s creators state. “They have set an example in life and in death.”
The deaths sparked international outrage on social media, including many tweets with the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter. The Council on American-Islamic Relations on Wednesday called on law enforcement to address speculation about a possible bias for the shootings. CAIR is a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
Thomas Walker, the chief U.S. prosecutor from the Eastern District, also is interested in the shooting. In recent years, his office has gotten to know many in the Muslim community while prosecuting high-profile terror cases from Wake and Johnston counties.
“The Muslim community has been good partners with law enforcement on a variety of fronts,” Walker said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s vitally important that their concerns not be ignored. We think it’s appropriate to closely monitor the investigation to determine any motivation in this case.”
The three students all grew up in Raleigh. The two women graduated from Athens Drive High School, and Barakat graduated from Broughton High School.
They all attended N.C. State University as undergraduates, where they all earned honors. Barakat finished in 2013, and his wife graduated last fall. Razan Abu Salha, a design student, made the Dean’s List in her first semester in the fall.
Yusor Abu-Salha was to enroll at UNC’s dental school next fall, joining her husband there. They planned to open a practice together but both advocated for global dental health, providing care and supplies to people in the United States and the Middle East. On Jan. 29, Barakat posted a Facebook photo of a Durham project that gave dental supplies and food to more than 75 homeless people this year.
Barakat was scheduled to travel with 10 other dentists this summer to Reyhanli, Turkey. There, they planned to treat Syrian refugee children for urgent dental needs, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and support Turkish dentists and clinics.
On Wednesday night friends and strangers grieved for the three, and for what might have been.
“We are here to mourn the loss of three amazing individuals,” said UNC system President Tom Ross. “They could have made a difference. They’ve already made a difference.”
Staff writers Tammy Grubb, Thomasi McDonald, Sarah Barr and Ron Gallagher contributed.