Investigators are still searching for a motive behind an attack in North Carolina that left three Muslim students dead, as speculation mounted that the killings might be linked to their religion.
Craig Stephen Hicks, who turned himself in, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the shooting deaths which took place on Tuesday night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The victims are Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Barakat was a second-year dental student at the University of North Carolina, where his wife was planning to begin her dental studies in the fall. Her sister was a student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Police responded to reports of gunshots at 5.11pm on Tuesday. All three victims were pronounced dead at the scene.
Parents of the victims arrived at the scene desperately pleading for information about the shooting. Police officers were unable to confirm the identities of the victims for several hours.
Police said on Wednesday they believed the crime was motivated by an ongoing dispute over parking. Hicks and the victims were neighbors.
“Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act,” said chief Chris Blue of the Chapel Hill police department.
“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.”
Police said Hicks is cooperating with investigators.
Hicks appeared in court Wednesday morning wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He spoke very little, only to confirm some information and say he understood the charges facing him. District Judge Maria Morey set the next hearing on 4 March. Hicks will be held without bond.
Shafi Khan, founder of the Alexandria, Virginia-based group United Muslim Relief, to which all three victims belonged, said the organization was broken-hearted at the news.
“These guys were the best of the best,” Khan said, his voice shaking. “There’s just no other way to put it. You can’t hope for better people than that.”
He said Barakat recently traveled to Palestine to provide dental care to special needs children. “It’s a segment that not a lot of people see,” Khan said.
Khan said Razan was an officer in the organization, leading monthly feedings for the homeless.
“Most people are remembering them for their legacy, what they left behind,” Khan said.
Donations to a website Barakat had set up to provide dental care to Syrian refugees in Turkey had nearly doubled by Wednesday morning.
While remembering the victims, Khan said there was already palpable concern among Muslim communities in the American south and elsewhere about the role the victims’ religion may have played in their killing.
“There is a fear in the community that it could be something hate-based,” Khan said. “I’ve been telling people to not make assumptions and to wait for the police.”