Chapel Hill murders: Police say parking dispute, Muslim community fears hate crime

Alleged shooter and atheist Craig Hicks uploaded a photo to his Facebook page (above) of his .38 revolver with an ammunition speedloader. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Alleged shooter and atheist Craig Hicks uploaded a photo to his Facebook page (above) of his .38 revolver with an ammunition speedloader. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Alleged shooter and declared atheist Craig Hicks, 46, posted negative comments regarding Christianity and Islam on his Facebook page. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Alleged shooter and declared atheist Craig Hicks, 46, posted negative comments regarding Christianity and Islam on his Facebook page. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina - Was it a hate crime or a dispute over parking?

Residents of the quiet college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, woke up Wednesday morning to the awful realisation that a fatal shooting in a modest apartment block, just across the road from the affluent neighbourhood of Meadowmont, may have been motivated by religious intolerance.

When the news first broke on Tuesday night, many probably assumed it was yet another domestic dispute gone tragically wrong, thanks to America's lax gun control laws.

But the victims were a young Muslim man, his wife and her teenage sister, and the father of the women is in no doubt as to why they were murdered.

"It was execution style, a bullet in every head," Dr Mohammad Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist in Clayton, told the Raleigh News & Observer.

The three were shot inside their apartment.

Police said preliminary investigations showed the shootings of Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were motivated by "an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking".

Dr Abu-Salha disagrees. He 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."

Deah was a dental student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and was collecting funds for a humanitarian mission to Turkey later this year in which he and classmates would provide dental services to Syrian refugees.

Two months ago, he had married Yusor, who was also planning to start dental studies at UNC. Razan was a student at NC State University in Raleigh. Both women wore head coverings.

They were young, bright and on the cusp of life.

It is not yet clear what their connection was to the man who turned himself in to police about an hour after the shooting.

But on his Facebook page, 46-year-old Craig Hicks, a paralegal by training and declared atheist, posted negative comments of radical Christians and Muslims as well as a picture, on Jan 20, of his .38 revolver with an ammunition speedloader.

He has been denied bail and is currently being held at Durham County Detention Centre.

Though the shootings occurred in the early evening, and rumours immediately began circulating, it was not until about 9pm that police confirmed the deaths, even to the immediate families, said a member of the Muslim community.

A TV news programme showed a video of a father imploring policemen outside the condo, to tell him what had happened to his son.

While cooler heads urged caution against jumping to conclusions, it was a crime unmistakeably charged with overtones of religious intolerance, with many fearing it could be a backlash against Muslims for atrocities being committed by radical groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"Oh yeah, pretty much all Muslims and especially parents immediately thought it's 'Islamophobia'-related," said the young Muslim graduate of UNC, who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety.

On the other hand, some news reports are suggesting it may simply have been a dispute between neighbours about parking.

As details unfolded, friends began asking each other if Hicks had gone to Chapel Hill High School, which until 1996, was the only high school here.

Chapel Hill is a small town, with a permanent population of 60,000 (the university adds another 30,000 through its student enrolment), many of them academic hires at UNC and nearby Duke University, and it has long prided itself on its liberal attitudes, diversity and tolerance.

Still, like any town in the US, it is not immune to violent crime. In the last few years, several brutal murders have occurred that were connected to the university, and some are still unsolved.

But shootings are not a frequent occurrence and the predictable factors are usually in play, of robbery, drugs, or socio-economic stress.

By and large, Chapel Hill is a safe and welcoming town, and residents are united in horror and condemnation, as well as grief, for the lives cut short.

The irony is not lost on some that the shootings come even as the town is mourning the loss of a longtime Chapel Hillian, legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith.

Smith was a local and national hero, not only for his achievements in college basketball, but also for his unswerving efforts in using his position and influence as a force for social change and racial integration, recruiting black players and eating out, and going to church with them, during a time when such integration was disapproved of.

Smith died Saturday, aged 83, of complications related to dementia.

Now days later, the Muslim community is reeling from the implications of these killings.

"It will create simply a lot of fear among the parents and a lot of rage and frustration in general," said the unnamed source.

"It ultimately sends the message that it doesnt matter what you do or don't do. As long as you look or dress a particular way or attend certain religious institutions, you'll be a target."

He said it would reinforce the fear of many immigrant parents, who would keep discouraging their children from engaging in any civil or political action about issues such as "Islamophobia".

Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue said he "understands concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case."

A vigil will be held for the victims on Wednesday night.

sharonl@sph.com.sg