Family, friends and thousands of other mourners gathered Thursday at solemn funeral and prayer services for three students gunned down in North Carolina, as police investigated whether religious hatred played any role in the shooting which authorities said was sparked by a dispute over parking spaces. A vigil was held in Chapel Hill Wednesday evening.
In pictures: Vigil held for the three murdered students
Relatives viewed the victims’ bodies in a small building apart from one of Raleigh’s largest mosques, where the Muslim families have long been members. Then — because of the sizable crowd — the service was moved across the street to athletic fields owned by North Carolina State University, where two victims had graduated and one was a student.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were found dead Tuesday at the newlywed couple’s home near the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus. Barakat attended graduate school there; his wife had planned to join him.
Those gathered Thursday — North Carolina State police estimated a crowd of 5,500 — grappled with questions about whether the violence had some connection to their Muslim faith. The father of the two slain women says hatred of Muslims might explain why the dispute erupted into death. Officials have said they’re still investigating any possibilities the crime was hate-motivated.
“We are definitely certain that our daughters were targeted for their religion,” the women’s father, Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “This is a moment of truth. I have just viewed their bodies.”
Charged with three counts of first-degree murder is Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who has described himself as a “gun toting” atheist. Neighbors describe him as angry and confrontational. His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the 1993 shooting-rampage movie “Falling Down” and showed “no compassion at all” for other people.
His current wife, Karen Hicks, said that her husband “champions the rights of others” and that the killings “had nothing do with religion or the victims’ faith.” She then issued another brief statement, saying she’s divorcing him.
The newlywed wife’s father said his daughter “felt that he was hateful and he did not like them, who they were and the way they looked.”
Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha also said he had urged law enforcement to look beyond their explanation of the parking spat in the complex where two of the victims and the suspect lived.
“This is not a parking dispute,” he said. “These children were executed with shots in the back of the head.” Police have said they are not commenting on evidence in the case, including manner of death.
“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,” Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue said in an email Wednesday.
Several people who knew the victims spoke about them at a Wednesday night vigil, describing selflessness and kindness.
Barakat and wife Abu-Salha were newlyweds who helped the homeless and raised money to help Syrian refugees in Turkey. They met while helping to run the Muslim Student Association at North Carolina State before he began pursuing an advanced degree in dentistry at UNC. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, who graduated in December, planned to join him at dentistry school in the fall.
Abu-Salha was visiting them Tuesday from Raleigh, where she studied design at North Carolina State.
Hicks had less success. His wife said Hicks, unemployed and driving a 15-year-old car, had been studying to become a paralegal.
A Second Amendment rights advocate with a concealed weapons permit, Hicks often complained about organized religion on Facebook. “Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative,” Hicks wrote.
Reporting by The Associated Press