Officials, Shooting Suspect's Wife Deny Faith Played Role in Chapel Hill Shooting

Following a university shooting, police arrested Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shown in a police booking photograph provided by the Durham County sheriff on February 11, 2015. Durham County Office of the Sheriff/Reuters

Updated | Three Muslim students were discovered fatally shot at residences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Tuesday afternoon, according to the Chapel Hill Police Department.

The three students have been identified as 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat; his wife, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad; and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, according to police, who responded to reports of gunshots at 5:15 p.m Tuesday. The victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

Officers have so far declined to state a motive for the crime, but several American Muslim groups on Wednesday raised concerns that the shooter may have targeted the victims because they were Muslim.

Chapel Hill police are investigating the motive, saying that “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking” might be partly to blame, CNN reports. Ripley Rand, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, told reporters Wednesday that an initial investigation into the shootings indicated they were "not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims."

Chapel Hill police identified Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, as the suspected gunman. Hicks turned himself in to police on Tuesday evening. He was arrested and is being held without bond at Durham County jail on three counts of first-degree murder, according to the police. Hicks is expected to make his first court appearance on Wednesday morning.  

The shooting occurred at the Finley Forest condominium complex, news site WRAL reports. The complex is home to a number of college and graduate students.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil advocacy organization in the U.S., called on law enforcement Wednesday to declare a motive. Media reports have quoted a widely shared Facebook post believed to have been posted by Hicks in which he quotes prominent religion critic Richard Dawkins on the September 11 terrorist attacks. Dawkins condemned the shootings in a subsequent tweet, according to The Guardian.

“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,” Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR, said in a statement.

Hicks's wife Karen Hicks said Wednesday that she believed the incident was related to the parking dispute and had nothing to do with religion. Hicks said she was "completely shocked" at what had happened, describing her husband has someone who "championed" for the rights of others. "He just believed - and I know that's just one of the things I know about him - is everyone is equal," she said. 

United Muslim Relief, a U.S.-based humanitarian organization, said it mourned the loss of the three students. Barakat and Mohammad were the founding members of the group’s North Carolina Triangle chapter, the organization said.

Ahmadiyya Muslims Community, a representative organization, the incident "troubling and deeply concerning," adding that in "the current climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, we need to talk about what is causing such hatred and figure out how to dispel it.”

Barakat was a second-year student at the university’s dental school, where Mohammad was planning to start classes in the fall, AFP reports. Abu-Salha was a student at North Carolina State University.

A Facebook group, Our Three Winners, has been set up to remember the three students and features photos of them, including wedding photos of Barakat and Mohammad. The group also includes a link to a YouTube video for Refugee Smiles, an organization Barakat was involved in that provides urgent dental care to Syrian refugees.

“As we mourn their tragic loss, we are also inspired to see how much these young people accomplished in their short lives. In an increasingly individualistic world, their lives stand as a shining example to young people all over the world,” Abed Aoub, president of United Muslim Relief, said in a statement.

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