CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Police are trying to determine whether hate played any role in the killing of three Muslims, a crime they said was sparked by a neighbor's long-simmering anger over parking and noise inside their condominium complex.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, describes himself as a "gun toting" atheist. Neighbors say he always seemed angry and confrontational. His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the shooting-rampage movie "Falling Down" and showed "no compassion at all" for other people.
His current wife, Karen Hicks, said he "champions the rights of others" and said the killings "had nothing do with religion or the victims' faith." Later Wednesday, she issued another statement, saying she's divorcing him.
Hicks appeared in court Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder in the deaths Tuesday of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. He pleaded indigence and was appointed a public defender.
Officers were summoned by a neighbor who called 911 reporting five to 10 shots and the sound of people screaming.
The women's father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said police told him each was shot in the head inside the couple's apartment, and that he, for one, is convinced it was a hate crime.
"The media here bombards the American citizen with Islamic, Islamic, Islamic terrorism and makes people here scared of us and hate us and want us out. So if somebody has any conflict with you, and they already hate you, you get a bullet in the head," said Abu-Salha, who is a psychiatrist.
The killings are fueling outrage among people who blame anti-Muslim rhetoric for hate crimes. A Muslim advocacy organization pressed authorities to investigate possible religious bias. Many posted social media updates with the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter. A vigil on the UNC campus was planned for Wednesday evening.
"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.
Chapel Hill police asked the FBI for help in their probe, and Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said his office was monitoring the investigation. But Rand said the crime "appears at this point to have been an isolated incident."
Barakat and Mohammad were newlyweds who helped the homeless and raised funds to help Syrian refugees in Turkey this summer. They met while running the Muslim Student Association at N.C. State before he began pursuing an advanced degree in dentistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mohammad planned to join her husband in dentistry school in the fall.
Abu-Salha was visiting them Tuesday from Raleigh, where she was majoring in design at N.C. State.
"This was like the power couple of our community," said Ali Sajjad, 21, the association's current president.
Many of the condominiums in the complex are rented or owned by students and recent graduates at UNC, whose campus is about three miles away.
Hicks had less success: Unemployed and driving a 15-year-old car, his wife said he's been studying to become a paralegal.
Hicks, a Second Amendment rights advocate with a concealed weapons permit, often complained about both Christians and Muslims on his Facebook page. "Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative," Hicks wrote.
Imad Ahmad, who lived in the condo where his friends were killed until Barakat and Mohammed were married in December, said Hicks complained about once a month that the two men were parking in a vistor's space as well as their assigned spot.
"He would come over to the door. Knock on the door and then have a gun on his hip saying 'you guys need to not park here,'" said Ahmad, a graduate student in chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill. "He did it again after they got married."
Both Hicks and his neighbors complained to the property managers, who apparently didn't intervene. "They told us to call the police if the guy came and harassed us again," Ahmad said.
"This man was frustrated day in and day out about not being able to park where he wanted to," said Karen Hicks' attorney, Robert Maitland.
The killings were "related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed," Karen Hicks said.
At their empty apartment Wednesday, orange stickers warning of biohazardous material inside were affixed to the door. A wooden placard bearing Arabic script that translates to "Thanks to God" hung over their doorbell.
A woman who lives near the scene described Hicks as short-tempered. "Anytime that I saw him or saw interaction with him or friends or anyone in the parking lot or myself, he was angry," Samantha Maness said of Hicks. "He was very angry, anytime I saw him."
Hicks' ex-wife, Cynthia Hurley, said that before they divorced about 17 years ago, his favorite movie was "Falling Down," the 1993 Michael Douglas film about a divorced unemployed engineer who goes on a shooting rampage.
"That always freaked me out," Hurley said. "He watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all," she said.
A probable cause hearing is scheduled for March 4. Police said Hicks was cooperating.
Drew reported from Durham. Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Chapel Hill, Emery Dalesio in Raleigh and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.