A 46-year-old North Carolina man has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder following the shooting deaths of three Muslim students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Deah Barakat, 23, Barakat's wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 23, and Yusor's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 21, were shot dead in their apartment near the campus on Tuesday afternoon as a result of what the police believe to be a dispute that was triggered over a parking space.
"Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,"Chapel Hill police said in a statement after the shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, turned himself in shortly after the murders.
Dr. Mohammed Abu-Salha, Yusor and Razan's father, told police that the murder was "execution style" and that "this was a hate crime."
"Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act," said Police Chief Chris Blue. "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 police, who have Hicks' cooperation, are investigating whether or not the murders should be considered a hate crime but social media users, particularly those familiar with Hicks' Facebook page, have come to the conclusion that the motive behind the shootings has mostly to do with the students' faith. A Facebook page, allegedly belonging to Hicks, was dug up on Tuesday night and many of the posts include anti-religious rants and photographs that denounce Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam. A recent post of his claimed that "religious scripture is ignorant of reality."
Razan, who was a student at North Carolina State University, was studying architecture and environmental design. Barakat was a second-year student in the UNC School of Dentistry and had been married to Yusor, also a student at NCSU, for one month before the shooting. The couple wed in December and Yusor was planning on continuing her studies at UNC Dental School in the fall.
Hicks is currently being held without bond in the Durham County Jail.
After news of the murders, Twitter and Facebook lit up with thousands of users sending prayers and support to the families of the victims and others who also identify as Muslim. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter has been trending since.
One user tweeted a photo of the couple on their wedding day with the caption, "Remember them like this. Deah and Yusor had names, dreams and families. #MuslimLivesMatter."
UNC Chapel Hill has since issued a brief statement: "We are sensitive to the impact an incident of this nature has on campus and in the community," the statement reads. "We understand you want to know the facts as quickly as possible. At the same time, we must respect the job our Chapel Hill police have as they investigate this crime."