WASHINGTON -- Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) expressed doubts on Thursday about the Chapel Hill Police Department's statement that the fatal shooting of three young Muslims earlier in the week was over a parking space.
Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, told CNN that he was "confident" there is more to the story of why Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were killed. He also urged authorities to pursue any leads pointing to a possible religious bias on the part of the victims' neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, who has been charged with the shooting.
"I think there are enough facts in the record to pursue that as a line of investigation," Ellison said. "There certainly are some facts to indicate that ... their religion may have been a factor, so I think that it's very important that we pursue this and get to the bottom of it. I am confident based on my review of the facts that the parking answer is certainly not the whole story."
Barakat, 23, his 21-year old wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were shot and killed in their Chapel Hill, North Carolina, apartment on Tuesday. Police said Wednesday that the shooting appeared to have been motivated by an ongoing dispute over parking, but said they would continue to investigate the possibility that it was a hate crime.
Hicks, who surrendered himself to police, has been charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bond.
Ellison added that he had spoken with individuals in North Carolina who said there was a tense history between Hicks and the victims that was not just about parking. The difficulties, Ellison said, may also have stemmed from comments about the three slain Muslims' "religious clothing or clothing associated with certain religious practices."
"It's prudent for us not to jump to a conclusion, but it's also prudent for us to keep all options open, including the possibility that it was a bias-motivated crime," Ellison said. "They were killed execution-style, so if the whole story about the parking were accurate, you would think that it would happen at a parking place where there was some kind of an argument. That's not what happened."
A Facebook page reportedly belonging to Hicks, a self-proclaimed atheist, included several anti-religion posts. Family members of the victims, including Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the two sisters, have said the killings were a hate crime motivated by religious bias. Abu-Salha told the media his daughters had been previously threatened by Hicks and feared their neighbor didn't like the way they looked.
Along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Abu-Salha has called on the Department of Justice to launch a federal hate crime probe.
Even as they seek answers, family members have asked that the victims be remembered for their contributions to society. Barakat, a dental student, recently handed out toothbrushes and toothpaste to the homeless and was raising funds for a charity trip to provide dental care to Syrian refugees. His wife Yusor, who was to start dental school in the fall, also volunteered with the same dental charity. Razan was on the dean's list at North Carolina State University and recently won an award for her artistic talents.
Ellison emphasized the importance of remembering the victims as young Americans, as opposed to focusing solely on their faith.
"These young people were extraordinary, but they were not unique in that they're young people who are Muslim who are doing what other young people around America are doing every day ... which is trying to make this a better place, which is trying to contribute their talents to a better America, a better world," Ellison said. "There will be plenty of time for police investigation, for justice to prevail. But right now let's just celebrate the lives of these awesome young people and remember that we have so much more in common."
"There's so much more to this than their religious identification," he added.