(Reuters) - A gunman who had posted anti-religious messages on Facebook was charged with killing three young Muslims in what police said on Wednesday was a dispute over parking and possibly a hate crime.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the shootings around 5 p.m. on Tuesday near the University of North Carolina campus.
The victims are newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a University of North Carolina dental student, and his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Yusor's sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.All were involved in humanitarian aid programs.
The suspect, in handcuffs and orange jail garb, appeared briefly early on Wednesday before Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey who ordered him held without bond pending a probable cause hearing set for March 4.
Muslim activists demanded that authorities investigate a possible motive of religious hatred for the killings.
The father of the two women, Mohammad Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist in Clayton, told the News & Observer that his daughters wore Muslim headscarves and that the killings bore signs of a hate crime based on religion and culture.
"It was execution style, a bullet in every head," Abu-Salha told the Raleigh, North Carolina-based newspaper.
"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."
PARKING DISPUTE CITED
Police said a preliminary investigation indicated the motive was an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking. They said Hicks turned himself in and was cooperating with police.
"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 a statement.
On Facebook, Hicks' profile picture reads "Atheists for Equality" and he frequently posted quotes critical of religion. On Jan. 20 he posted a photo of a .38-caliber revolver that he said was loaded and belonged to him.
"Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader," the post said.
It was not immediately possible to reach a defense attorney for Hicks. The clerk's office at the Durham County District Court said the name of the public defender assigned to Hicks would probably not be made public until Thursday morning.
The shooting sparked the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter on social media, with posters questioning what role the victims' faith may have played in the incident.
Groups including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the local Raleigh-based Muslims for Social Justice called for a federal investigation into possible hate crimes, citing Hicks' social media posts.
"We are seeing multiple cases of attacks against Muslims in North Carolina that are very troubling," said Manzoor Cheema, co-founder of Muslims for Social Justice. "I hope this terrible tragedy will be a turning point that brings the reality home that if we keep demonizing Muslims and equating their religion to terrorism, it will lead to more attacks."
Barakat was a second-year dental student at the University of North Carolina. His wife was planning on starting dentistry school at UNC in the next school year. Her sister was a sophomore at nearby North Carolina State University.
On the memorial page friends described the victims as being passionate about their humanitarian work. The newlywed couple recently traveled to Turkey to provide free fillings, root canals and oral hygiene instruction to Syrian refugee children.
Abu-Salha was involved with making multimedia art to spread positive messages about being Muslim American.
A Facebook page titled "Our Three Winners" was created to honor the victims, and a vigil was planned near the university's Chapel Hill campus for Wednesday night.
In a statement posted to the town of Chapel Hill website, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said: "We do not know whether anti-Muslim bias played a role in this crime, but I do recognize the fear that members of our community may feel. Chapel Hill is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter."