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Grand jury indicts suspect in shooting deaths of 3 Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill

The day after several thousand people marched in Qatar to show solidarity with the families of three Muslim-Americans killed last week in Chapel Hill, a Durham County grand jury handed up indictments against the man accused of killing them.

The grand jury, which meets in private and only hears a brief description of the evidence in cases, charged Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, with three counts of murder and one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

Hicks, a Chapel Hill resident who was enrolled in a paralegal program at Durham Technical Community College, has been housed in North Carolina’s Central Prison in Raleigh since his arrest Tuesday night for what authorities said was “safekeeping.”

As police continue their criminal probe, the world has responded with vigils, marches and questions about the motives for the violent deaths last Tuesday of the three promising students from UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University.

Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was a dental student at UNC whose community outreach and volunteer work helped many all over the world.

Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Barakat’s wife of less than two months and a 21-year-old recent N.C. State University graduate, also planned to enroll in the dental school.

Her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, a 19-year-old NCSU design student who planned to become an architect, often was in downtown Raleigh helping serve meals to the homeless.

Two search warrants in the Durham County courthouse, where the murder cases will be tried, and a Chatham County Sheriff’s Office incident report from last week offer a glimpse of what law enforcement officers have gathered so far in their investigation.

Hicks, a 6-foot-1 man with thinning reddish hair, a beard and a mustache, turned himself in to two Chatham deputies outside the Sheriff’s Office there Tuesday night.

Deputies there, who seized the gun that police think was used in the homicides, contacted Chapel Hill police to let them know that a man claiming to be the shooter had turned himself in.

Chapel Hill police sent an officer to tow Hicks’ gold Nissan back to a secured place in Chapel Hill so officers could obtain a search warrant and comb the vehicle for hairs, fibers, blood and other evidence that could be used at a trial.

Evidence taken

Investigators seized the car’s registration card and an insurance card, and they swabbed the steering wheel, a seat belt, a door handle and the back of the driver’s seat. They also collected a Pittsburgh Steelers’ towel from the front passenger seat.

The shootings occurred at the Finley Forest condominium complex, in a part of Chapel Hill that is in Durham County. Hicks and the married victims lived in neighboring condominiums.

Investigators recovered a cache of roughly a dozen weapons from Hicks’ home – including six rifles, two shotguns and four handguns, most of which were fully loaded, according to a search warrant. Investigators also reported finding three Airsoft hobby handguns and rifles, which fire nonmetallic BBs.

Inside the home of the victims, investigators recovered a watch, three iPhones, eight shell casings from the living room, two sets of keys, a bullet, a black wallet and an N.C. State key chain that belonged to Barakat.

Neighbors have said Hicks often complained about residents and visitors at Finley Forest parking in his reserved space. He called one tow truck company so often that they stopped responding to his calls.

Barakat was found in the threshold of the condo doorway with blood around his head. One of the women was found dead in the kitchen, near the dishwasher. The other was found close to the kitchen entrance.

The father of the women said soon after the shootings that he thought what happened was a hate crime, but Chapel Hill police have cited a parking dispute as motive.

Investigators obtained access to Hicks’ Facebook page and stated on the warrant application that his page “revealed images of a firearm and various images showing his affiliation with atheism.”

Though many around the globe have questioned whether the victims were targeted because they were Muslim, no hate-crime charges have been brought. Such charges typically would be filed by federal – not state – authorities.

Federal investigators opened an inquiry last week to determine, in part, whether religious bias was a motive. For a federal hate-crime charge to be brought and successfully prosecuted, legal analysts say, religious bias must be the predominant motivating factor, not one of many.

Saudi Arabia, in a statement released Sunday by the official Saudi Press Agency, condemned the killing as a “heinous terrorist” act and called for an end to incitement against Muslims.

Muslims in the Triangle have come together to speak out against the violence. While leaders call for patience as the justice system does its work, they also have highlighted an anti-Islamic sentiment that many say they feel.

‘A healthier relationship’

Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, has said he thinks it is important for law enforcement agencies to work closely with the Muslim community, not just on this case but others, too.

“Law enforcement and our local Muslim community have worked hard to bring ourselves into a healthier relationship,” said Walker, whose office has prosecuted several high-profile terror cases in which the suspects profess their Islamic faith. “Is it perfect? No. But we are learning to talk to each other. And that partnership is something both law enforcement and our Muslim community all desire. And it pays off in particular when a tragedy like this occurs.”

Walker will be in Washington, D.C., for several days this week for a White House summit that President Barack Obama will convene on countering violent extremism.

Walker, one of only seven U.S. attorneys from across the nation invited to the summit, is quick to point out that the conference was called long before the Chapel Hill shootings and that it’s too early to know the motivations of the shooter in that case.

The summit, Walker said, is designed to bring stakeholders from national and local governments, the private sector and religious and youth leaders together. They will discuss conditions in this country that lead to extremism and will try to find ways to reverse the tide of young people being recruited to join the terrorist Islamic State and similar groups.

Walker said he looks forward to the discussion and continuing to build bridges to North Carolina’s Muslim communities.

“We want to continue efforts to build trust,” he said. “That works both ways.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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