Three members of a Muslim family shot to death Tuesday in their home near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus may have been killed over a parking dispute.
The suspect, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, surrendered and was arrested on charges of first-degree murder. He is accused of killing Deah Barakat, 23, Barakat's wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Yusor's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19.
Police responded to reports of gunshots at about 5:15 p.m., Tuesday, when they found the victims' bodies. The shooting happened in a neighborhood that is mostly rental apartments where students live, and crime there is low, according to the News and Observer.
That night, frantic parents waited outside Finley Forest Condominiums, where police were investigating the triple homicide, the Daily Tarheel reports. One mother broke down in tears after she inquired about her daughter and son-in-law, while a father screamed, "It's been hours! Just tell me if he's alive!"
"Why do I cry?" Farris Barakat, Deah's brother, wrote on Facebook. "So many times I've grabbed my phone to text my brother, Yusor, and Razan. Except seconds later I realize that I've taken them for granted and imagine their phone laying by their bodies. That's not okay guys."
On Wednesday, police said the motive behind the shooting may have been an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking, rather than a hate crime.
"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," Chief Chris Blue of the Chapel Hill Police Department said at a press conference.
UPDATE 3:15 P.M.: In a press conference, Hicks' wife of seven years, Karen, said she "never would have expected this." She said that the shooting had nothing to do with race or religion, and everything to do with parking problems.
"This incident had nothing to do with religion or victims’ faith but instead had to do with the longstanding parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors," she said, choking back tears. "He often champions on his Facebook page for the rights of many individuals. Same sex marriages, abortion, race, he just believes that everyone is equal. Doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are or what you believe."
Karen Hicks in a press conference on Wednesday.
She said she didn't know what drove Hicks to allegedly shoot three people, but her lawyers said that the suspect didn't single out the victims and had problems with other neighbors in the past. Hicks' ex-wife, Kristen, told The Huffington Post that she hadn't "heard from or seen him in 10 years," and had no further comment.
Still, the father of two victims, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, believes hate led to the killings.
"It was execution style, a bullet in every head," he told the News Observer. "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."
In a press conference Wednesday, Deah's eldest sister Suzanne echoed Abu-Salha's sentiments.
"We’re still in a state of shock and will never be able to make sense of this horrendous tragedy," she said. "We ask that the authorities investigate these senseless and heinous murders as a hate crime ... We ask that you celebrate the memories of our family members."
The gruesome scene has sparked an outcry on Facebook and Twitter, as word circulated that Hicks described himself as an "anti-theist" and criticized religions online, according to The Independent. That revelation, as well as a lack of media attention to the shooting Tuesday night, reportedly led to a "#MuslimLivesMatter" hashtag.
My cousin, his wife and sister in law were murdered for being muslim. Someone tell me racism/hate crimes don't exist. #MuslimLivesMatter
— Haya Barakat (@HayaBarakat) February 11, 2015
Less than two weeks before he was killed, Barakat -- a dental student at UNC -- was involved in a debate over the Gaza Strip on Twitter, the New York Daily News reports. One of his tweets went viral when news of his death spread. It reads: "It's so freaking sad to hear people saying we should "kill Jews" or "Kill Palestinians". As if that's going to solve anything SMH."
It's so freaking sad to hear people saying we should "kill Jews" or "Kill Palestinians". As if that's going to solve anything SMH
— Deah Barakat (@arabprodigy30) January 28, 2015
Each of the young family members was a student. Yusor -- who married Barakat in December, according to their Facebook profiles -- recently graduated with a degree in human biology at North Carolina State University. Razan was studying architecture and environmental design at North Carolina State University last year, according to her Facebook page.
Barakat was a regular volunteer and helped organize an effort to raise money to provide free dental care to students of the Salaam School in Turkey, according to WRAL. His final Facebook post features a photo of efforts to hand out dental supplies to the homeless in North Carolina. He also started a fundraising page for a trip this summer to Turkey, where he planned to provide dental care to Syrian refugees. Supporters sent in thousands of dollars after the shooting, and the fundraising goal was exceeded by more than $10,000 Wednesday morning.
NC State University's Facebook page features Razan in a video after she won a contest for her 3D abstract model-making:
On Facebook, a memorial page was set up to remember the family as "faithful" and "beautiful."
Huffington Post reporter Michael McLaughlin contributed to this story.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Yusor Abu-Salha hadn't yet graduated from North Carolina State University.