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Victims’ father says Chapel Hill triple homicide was a ‘hate crime’

The father of two of three students shot to death in Chapel Hill on Tuesday says the shooting was a “hate crime” based on the Muslim identity of the victims.

Chapel Hill police said Wednesday morning that a dispute about parking in the neighborhood of rented condominiums near Meadowmont may have led Craig Stephen Hicks to shoot his neighbors, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.

But the women’s father, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who has a psychiatry practice in Clayton, said regardless of the precise trigger Tuesday night, Hicks’ underlying animosity toward Barakat and Abu-Salha was based on their religion and culture. Abu-Salha said police told him Hicks shot the three inside their apartment.

“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Abu-Salha said Wednesday morning. “This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”

Abu-Salha said his daughter who lived next door to Hicks wore a Muslim head scarf and told her family a week ago that she had “a hateful neighbor.”

“Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look,’” he said.

Randy Tysinger, a spokesman for Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina which includes Chapel Hill, said federal prosecutors are aware of the allegations the shooting was a hate crime. But Tysinger stressed that the Chapel Hill police investigation is in the early stages and said the federal prosecutor’s office would wait for more details before deciding whether to launch a federal hate crime investigation.

Police charged Hicks with three counts of first-degree murder.

“Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” said police spokesman Lt. Joshua Mecimore. “Hicks is cooperating with investigators.”

Hicks appeared in Durham County District Court on Wednesday morning and asked for a public defender. The shooting took place in the Durham County part of Chapel Hill.

Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey told Hicks there would be a probable cause hearing on the charges on March 4 and sent him back to the county jail to be held without bail.

On his Facebook page, Hicks described himself as an atheist and appeared to address anyone who held a religious belief.

“I give your religion as much respect as your religion gives me,” he wrote. “There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being – which your religion does with self-righteous gusto.”

It’s not clear if Hicks was referring to a particular religion or all religions. He continued:

“When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me,” he wrote. “If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I. But given that it doesn’t, and given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I’d say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it, as does every rational, thinking person on this planet.”

Abu-Salha said that Muslims and non-Muslims alike needed to look past stereotypes.

“This is a result of hate and stereotypes,” he said “It’s a big problem. Hate and stereotypes are products of the media and the press pushing people in all directions and focussing on the bad. People should just give up hate and stereotypes and get to know you before they take a stand against you, and what you practice and what you believe in.”

Victims graduated high school in Raleigh

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt sent out a message to the campus, saying that counseling was available and a community vigil was planned for Wednesday night.

“Such an act of violence goes against the very fiber of our community and society. It also creates a sense of vulnerability for all of us, especially members of the Muslim community,” Folt’s email said. “I am in touch with the Muslim community and students and will continue to be in conversation with them. While the Chapel Hill police continue to gather facts, Carolina has and will remain focused on supporting all members of our community.”

Chapel Hill police found all three victims dead at the scene, after responding to a report of gunshots on Summerwalk Circle at 5:11 p.m. Tuesday. A woman who called 911 described hearing gunshots as she walked through the complex of apartments and condominiums adjacent to the Friday Center.

“I heard about eight shots go off in an apartment – I don't know the number – about three girls, more than one girl, screaming, and then there was nothing,” the unidentified caller said. “And then I heard about three more shots go off.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations on Wednesday called on law enforcement to address speculation about a possible bias for the shootings. CAIR is a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

As news of Tuesday’s killings spread through the international Muslim community, many turned to Facebook and Twitter to share their grief. A Facebook community – Our Three Winners ( nando.com/xl) – was started early Wednesday to share news and memories of the students.

“Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord,” the community’s creators state. “They have set an example in life and in death.”

The deaths sparked international outrage on social media, including many tweets with the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter.

“Three Muslims murdered tonight in Chapel Hill, NC by a man because they were Muslim. What a sad night in America,” one person tweeted.

Barakat was a doctoral student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Dentistry, where his wife was to enroll in the fall. Students and mourners left flowers outside the dental school Wednesday.

Wake County Public School System officials confirmed that Razan and Yusor Abu-Shala graduated from Athens Drive High School, Yusor in 2011 and Razan in 2013. Deah Barakat graduated from Broughton High School in 2009.

Barakat and Abu-Salha were married Dec. 27. Abu-Salha’s Facebook photo – posted two days ago – shows her smiling as her father twirls her around the wedding dance floor.

All three had all earned honors as undergraduate students at NCSU, according to university officials.

Barakat graduated with a bachelors degree in business, magna cum laude, in 2013. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha graduated last fall – a semester early – cum laude with a degree in biological sciences. And Razan Abu-Salah was on the dean’s list last fall, her first semester at NCSU. She was studying design and because of transfer credits was a sophomore.

Barakat, a Syrian-American, enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013 to pursue his doctorate in dental surgery.

Both he and Abu-Salha advocated for global dental health, providing care and supplies to people in the United States and the Middle East. On Jan. 29, Barakat posted a Facebook photo of a Durham project that gave dental supplies and food to more than 75 homeless people this year.

Barakat was scheduled to travel with 10 other dentists this summer to Reyhanli, Turkey. There, they planned to treat Syrian refugee children for urgent dental needs, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and support Turkish dentists and clinics.

In a video, he made an urgent plea for donations: “These kids don’t have access to the same health care as us, and their prolonged pain can easily be taken of with the work that we do, but we need the proper funding,” he said, wearing a “Carolina Dentistry” T-shirt. “So let’s relieve their pain. If you want to make a difference in the life of a child most in need, then I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.”

The online campaign for “Project: Refuge Smiles,” ( nando.com/xk) which Barakat was spearheading, was sponsored by the dental school and the Syrian-American Medical Society.

At last count Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had surpassed $75,000 in donations – well beyond its $20,000 goal with 170 days to spare.

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