Three young Muslim students were gunned down in their North Carolina family home Tuesday evening in what is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
According to North Carolina news station WRAL, the students were shot dead in their house on Summerwalk Circle in Chapel Hill around 5 pm. Locals reported hearing gunshots before the police arrived. The victims were found dead at the scene, all of them shot in the head.
46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks has been arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the case after he turned himself in to police early Wednesday morning. According to postings on his Facebook page, Hicks was a fervent atheist, and posted images of his gun in the past as well as several images decrying both Islam and religion in general.
“Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” police said in a statement collected by BuzzFeed.
Police Chief Chris Blue of the Chapel Hill Police Department added: “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.”
The victims, all of whom were pronounced dead at the scene, were Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, of Chapel Hill, Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.
Barakat was a second-year dental student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and school officials told various outlets that he married Mohammad in December of last year. Both Abu-Salha and Mohammad were students at North Carolina State University, and Mohammad reportedly planned on starting dental school at UNC later this year.
Muslims across the country were immediately outraged by the killings, and quickly began calling for more information about the lead-up to the student’s deaths. Although the shooter’s motive is unclear, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a statement noting the possible connection between Hicks’s anti-religion statements and the religious affiliation of the victims.
“Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case,” the statement read.
Students in North Carolina were shocked by the shootings, and a Facebook page has already been created as a memorial to the felled students. People also began using the hashtags #chapelhillshooting and #MuslimLivesMatter to discuss the shooting and express solidarity with the fallen — including Muslim Congressman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).
My thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those senselessly murdered in Chapel Hill last night #MuslimLivesMatter
— Rep. Keith Ellison (@keithellison) February 11, 2015
Many were also highly critical of the media, which they saw as slow to cover the shootings.
— Salman Saleem (@salmansaleem_pk) February 11, 2015
Some atheists on Twitter noted the suspected shooters’ non-belief but condemned the killings, including prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion was listed as a favorite by Hicks.
How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?http://t.co/pdtwnKqYG3
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 11, 2015
We strongly denounce violence against anyone, no matter what their beliefs. Our thoughts are with the victims & families.#ChapelHillShooting
— American Humanist (@americnhumanist) February 11, 2015
Tragic, wrong in every way-not just the killing. Wrong when atheism, hatred paired at all-particularly vs Muslims http://t.co/ktk4WPPy4l
— Greg Epstein (@gregmepstein) February 11, 2015
— Me Myself & Y'all (@AmericanGriper) February 11, 2015