(Reuters) – A gunman shot dead three young Muslims near the University of North Carolina, riling Muslim activists on Wednesday who demanded that U.S. state and federal authorities investigate the suspect for possible hate crimes.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder, the Chapel Hill Police Department said in a statement on Wednesday.
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.
Police identified the victims in the Tuesday evening shooting as dental student Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told Reuters the three were Muslim.
“Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, 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 CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.
Police offered no motive for the killings. Hicks was being held at the Durham County Jail, police said.
The shooting sparked the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter on social media, with posters also questioning what role the students’ faith may have played in the incident.
A Facebook page titled “Our Three Winners” was created to honor the victims, who were all involved in humanitarian efforts, and a vigil was planned near the university’s Chapel Hill campus for Wednesday night.
Police released few details about the shooting at a condominium complex. Officers responded to a report of gunshots at 5:11 p.m. local time and found the three victims, who were all pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
WRAL.com in Raleigh reported that Chapel Hill police were investigating whether an ongoing dispute over parking may have led to the shooting. Police could not be reached immediately to confirm the report.
The university said Barakat was a second-year student at its dentistry school and his wife was planning on starting there in the next school year.
Officials at North Carolina State University said Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha was a sophomore there and that her sister graduated from the school in December.
(Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Howard Goller)