CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — A long-running parking dispute between neighbors sparked the shooting deaths of three family members at a quiet condominium complex near the University of North Carolina campus, police said Wednesday.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Tuesday shooting, Chapel Hill police said. He appeared briefly in court Wednesday morning.
The victims were identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, of Chapel Hill; Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh. Barakat and Mohammad were married, and Abu-Salha was Mohammad's sister, according to UNC.
A Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization raised concerns about the motive and asked authorities to address speculation — much of it on social media — about possible anti-Muslim bias.
"Based on the brutal nature of this crime ... the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case," said Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In the statement from Chapel Hill police, Chief Chris Blue said, "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."
Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at nearby Duke University, issued a statement calling for people not to jump to conclusions over the motive for the killings.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in North Carolina that encompasses Chapel Hill didn't immediately return messages seeking comment about whether federal prosecutors were involved in the investigation or looking into a possible hate crime.
In his court appearance, Hicks — in an orange jumpsuit and shackles — spoke only to answer that he understood the charges and to confirm parts of an indigency affidavit he had filled out. District Judge Marcia Morey said he would be appointed a public defender.
She scheduled a probable cause hearing for March 4. He will be held without bond.
Police said Hicks was cooperating and that their preliminary investigation showed that the parking dispute was the motive.
At UNC, Barakat was a second-year dental student, and Yusor was scheduled to begin dental studies in the fall.
Both had graduated from North Carolina State University, school spokesman Mick Kulikowski said. Barakat graduated with a business administration degree in the spring of 2013. Mohammad graduated in December with a biological sciences degree.
Abu-Salha was a sophomore design major who had started classes last fall, Kulikowski said.
The neighborhood where they were found — about three miles east of campus — consists mostly of apartments and condominiums rented by students. Neighbors there said Wednesday morning that never before seen police or had crime problems.
"It's a very quiet community," resident Bethany Boring told WRAL-TV. "It's a lot of graduate and professional students. You know, professional families."
Crime tape hung near the apartment where the victims were found, but otherwise there was no indication of a crime scene. Outside the victim's apartment, a woman's bicycle with a helmet was parked by the stairs.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Durham County Sheriff)