For years, suspect in triple killing was frustrated about parking

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, enters the courtroom for his first appearance Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, at the Durham County Detention Center. He is accused of shooting his Finley Forest neighbors, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, enters the courtroom for his first appearance Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, at the Durham County Detention Center. He is accused of shooting his Finley Forest neighbors, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh. cliddy@newsobserver.com

For years, Craig Stephen Hicks had been ranting about parking troubles in the wooded condo community he shared with his wife and hundreds of college students.

He distributed fliers on the windshields of neighbors’ cars. He called tow trucks. Last year, he considering hiring a lawyer and suing the complex’s homeowners’ association for failing to enforce parking rules, according to Robert Maitland, an attorney for Hicks’ wife, Karen.

Hicks’ ire intensified as he watched his wife navigate a walker across the parking lot when the assigned spot near their unit was taken by an uninvited car.

On Feb. 10, Hicks’ fury over parking etiquette sent him into such a rage he stormed into his neighbors’ unit and killed three young college students, police say. It is not clear who, if anyone, had parked in his assigned spot.

But the crime was so brutal, so senseless, that Triangle residents are left searching for answers. How could a 160-square-foot patch of worn asphalt spark such discord that it could destroy the lives of so many?

The three young victims – Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha – were devout Muslims. Federal investigators are scouring the life of Hicks, a self-described atheist, for signs of religiously motivated hatred, dissecting hundreds of Facebook posts that capture his scorn for organized religion. The father of the sisters, Mohammad Abu-Salha, has called the murders a hate crime and urged prosecutors to examine religious strife as a motivation.

Hicks’ Facebook page reveals a man who escapes simple labeling. He treated organized religion with contempt and despised any attempt to limit the rights of gay people to marry or women to have abortions. He loved guns and dogs and Disney World and America’s forefathers. But many of his posts were so biting, so irreverent, observers have latched on to the notion that Hicks is a hateful zealot.

One thing seems indisputable: Hicks was angry. His admonitions to neighbors about parking led to a community meeting last year, where residents such as Samantha Maness discussed how Hicks’ behavior made them feel “unsafe and uncomfortable.” At a news conference after the shootings, Karen Haggerty Hicks, Hicks’ wife, suggested that some sort of mental illness was plaguing Hicks; she is divorcing him.

To understand the root of Hicks’ rancor, investigators will need to unpack the daily agitations and the struggles that led Hicks to this densely settled condominium community on the eastern edge of Chapel Hill.

‘In the boondocks’

Finley Forest Condominiums are nestled in a wooded area just off Interstate 40 where Orange and Durham counties meet. When built in the 1980s, the complex was just far enough from UNC-Chapel Hill’s main housing that the original owners were mostly young professionals and graduate students.

“Finley Forest was in the boondocks at the time,” said Elizabeth Wooten, the original owner of the unit where Hicks lived with his wife.

Throughout the complex, two sets of eight units share a modest parking area. In the lot Hicks and two of the victims used, 16 units share 24 spots. Each unit was assigned a single spot; the rest – eight spaces – were first-come, first-served for residents and their visitors, current and former residents have said.

Wooten said that the parking felt like plenty when she lived there in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Just about everyone was single,” said Wooten, who sold her condo to Karen Haggerty in 1997. “There were no married couples in our building. We only had one car each.”

Over the next 18 years, though, Finley Forest shifted from an outpost to a destination. Development soon filled the gaps between UNC’s central campus and Finley Forest. The Friday Center, a UNC-CH program for continuing education, opened in 1991, complete with a park-and-ride shuttle to campus. Meadowmont, an upscale mix of apartments, housing and restaurants, was finished in 2001.

By 2007, residents of Finley Forest had grown so aggravated by unauthorized students parking in their community that they petitioned the Town Council to require permits for cars parking along the development’s streets.

“Our community has become a ‘parking and ride destination’ for non-resident students of UNC-CH causing significant traffic congestion and a safety hazard for residents,” according to a 2007 letter written by the homeowners’ association leaders to the town. Some days, the letter said, as many as 100 cars squeezed into the development’s narrow streets.

Through the 2000s, parking for residents sometimes felt inadequate, too. Many original owners had moved on, selling their units or sometimes renting them to clusters of UNC students. A two-bedroom unit owned by a single person in the 1980s became a rental in 2010 shared by four students, each often with a car.

Job and marriage troubles

Hicks had little in common with the students who became his neighbors after he married Karen Haggerty seven years ago. Many were embarking on ambitious college studies. At 46, Hicks was decades older and had spent his career selling automotive parts. He had been recruited to the Triangle in the mid-2000s for a job in the automotive business but was soon laid off, Maitland confirmed.

By 2010, forced to reinvent himself, he was working in the deli and bakery at Harris Teeter in Meadowmont Village, according to a post on his Facebook page. In 2012, he enrolled part-time at Durham Technical Community College to study to become a paralegal. He was set to graduate in May.

Hicks had arrived in the Triangle after two failed marriages. His unions had been short-lived, with a child arriving several months after each wedding. His first wife, Cynthia Hurley, has told The Associated Press that Hicks had showed her no compassion when they were married. Kristin Bradford, his second wife, complained of mental cruelty in the divorce petition she filed in 2004.

He owed each wife $350 a month in child support, and for years, he struggled to meet those obligations. In 2010, he relinquished his parental rights – and thus his financial obligation – to his 16-year-old daughter so that her stepfather could adopt her, court records show.

His support payments for his 10-year-old daughter with Bradford were so behind that the case has been referred to an assistant prosecutor who has the power to prosecute Hicks. According to court filings, a Durham County judge ordered Hicks on Feb. 5 to pay back child support of $10,764 plus interest of $3,425. He was scheduled to return to court next month.

Gun on his hip

Hicks met Karen Haggerty after moving to the Triangle. She worked days as a nurse practitioner at Durham County Department of Public Health.

Many of Hicks’ Durham Tech classes were in the evening, so by day, he often watched the parking area outside their condominium, neighbors said.

Hicks and his wife each had a car. A spot just outside the gate to their courtyard was assigned to their unit. Maitland, Karen Hicks’ lawyer, said the couple had another parking space in the lot as well, though it’s not clear why they would have been assigned an extra spot.

Craig Hicks complained to the homeowners’ association about parking violators for years, Maitland said. He attended meetings and urged the association to get a grip on parking problems.

“At one point for several months, they authorized him to distribute fliers on cars and call tow trucks,” Maitland said. “Eventually, there was so much backlash that the HOA changed position and stopped calling tow trucks.” The situation worsened, he said.

The current president of the Finley Forest Homeowners Association said board members decline to discuss Hicks or the parking dispute.

Hicks’ frustration about parking intensified in the last year when his wife had an injury requiring her to use a walker, Maitland said. He vigilantly monitored the reserved spot five feet from the gate leading to their unit.

Parking strife in a university town such as Chapel Hill, where parking spaces feel inadequate for the number of residents driving cars, is not unusual. How the tensions played out in the lot Hicks shared with residents at Finley Forest was.

He confronted neighbors who took their spots, sometimes with a gun on his hip, residents have said. Hicks had a permit to carry a concealed firearm; after the shooting, police found about a dozen firearms and ammunition in his home, according to search warrants.

Though several past and current residents said his methods made them uncomfortable, no one complained to police.

Hicks had been quarreling with Barakat and his wife for months about parking. Their unit was behind Hicks’, and the parking spaces nearest the sidewalk that led to their condo were also the closest to the Hicks’ home.

Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Barakat’s wife, felt something more in Hicks’ agitation: targeted hatred.

She confided to her father just a week before the shooting that Hicks despised them. Abu-Salha wore a head scarf, a traditional covering for many women in the Muslim faith. Yusor Abu-Salha told her family that Hicks picked on them a few times, sometimes with a gun on his hip, her father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, has said.

Shortly before her death, Yusor Abu-Salha offered an ominous assessment of the conflict. Her father has related the conversation to reporters this way:

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

Staff writers Tammy Grubb and Thomasi McDonald contributed.