Muslim leaders in North Carolina on Friday welcomed an FBI decision to open a preliminary inquiry into the shooting deaths of three Muslim students this week in the scenic college town.
The families of the three victims have demanded that federal authorities investigate the murders as a possible hate crime motivated by the students’ Muslim faith.
Chapel Hill police have said the shootings apparently stemmed from an ongoing dispute over a parking space, and no evidence has emerged that the accused killer, a neighbor, harbored anti-Muslim views.
A search warrant filed in Durham County courts Friday said that Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, owned a dozen guns, including rifles and shotguns, along with cases of ammunition and several loaded ammunition clips.
At an emotional prayer service for the students Thursday, the father of two of the victims demanded that the FBI investigate the possibility that it was a religiously motivated hate crime.
The FBI announced late Thursday, several hours after the prayer service, that it was launching a "parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated related to the case."
"This is positive news, a good action," said Mohamed Elgamal, chairman of the Islamic Assn. of Raleigh, which helped organize the prayer service and has called on federal authorities to investigate.
"We have three people killed execution-style, and a dispute over a parking space was not the reason," Elgamal said. He called the police account of the parking dispute motive "premature."
"We have to keep all options open," he said.
President Obama condemned the shootings Friday and offered his condolences to the victims' families.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship,” Obama said in a statement.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a dental student at the University of North Carolina; his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, who was to enter the same dental program next fall; and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, a student at N.C. State University, were shot and killed inside the couple’s condominium around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Police charged Hicks, the couple's upstairs neighbor, with three counts of first-degree murder. Residents of the Finley Forest condominiums described Hicks as a menacing figure who confronted neighbors of all races and religions over parking spaces and noise complaints.
They said Hicks was obsessed with the parking spaces in front of his condominium and was responsible for the towing of several residents’ cars. Neighbors were so concerned about Hicks’ rants that they called a neighborhood meeting last year.
Several neighbors interviewed this week said that while Hicks frequently exploded in rage, they never heard him make anti-Muslim comments.
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha, said Yusor complained to him about a hostile neighbor who confronted the couple while wearing a gun in his belt. Razan Abu-Salha visited the couple, who married Dec. 27, on the day of the killings.
"This has hate crime written all over it," Mohammad Abu-Salha told mourners at the prayer service Thursday.
Amira Ata, a friend of the couple, told the youth-oriented media company Fusion that Hicks confronted them about noise and extra cars in the lot just after Ata had left the condominium following a game of Risk last fall. Ata said Yusor Abu-Salha told her later that Hicks held a rifle as he complained that noise from her condominium had awakened his wife.
On his Facebook page, Hicks promoted "anti-theism" and disparaged organized religions as superstitious, calling them "ignorant and dangerous."
"Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative," he wrote. A photo posted on the page last month shows a holstered handgun.
A Chapel Hill Police spokesman, Lt. Joshua Mecimore, declined to specify the weapon used in the shootings, or to reveal how many times the victims were shot. The students’ families have said police told them they were shot in the head "execution-style."
The three students were active in local and international charities. On Friday, Barakat’s family announced the launch of FeedTheirLegacy.org, a canned food drive that honors Barakat’s volunteer work feeding the homeless.
A fund Barakat started to raise money for a trip to Turkey to provide dental care to Syrian refugees reached nearly $280,000 Friday – far above his original goal of $20,000.
At the request of local authorities, the FBI had been assisting with processing evidence in the murder investigation prior to Thursday’s announcement. A spokeswoman for the FBI in Washington, D.C., declined Friday to discuss the investigation and referred a reporter to the FBI’s Charlotte office. Shelley Lynch, an FBI spokeswoman in Charlotte, also declined to comment.
Representatives of the Department of Justice press office in Washington, D.C., did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue has said investigators would "exhaust every lead to determine" whether the killings were motivated by religious hatred. Durham Dist. Atty. Roger Echols, who is prosecuting Hicks, said religious bias is among the possible motives under investigation.
Under federal law, "hate crime acts" are defined as "offenses involving actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin" bias.
The law provides for a sentence of 10 years to life for causing bodily injury in the commission of a hate crime. For hate crimes involving murder, the penalty is life in prison.
Joseph E. Kennedy, a University of North Carolina law professor, said federal authorities normally get involved in such cases when they believe local authorities may not be fully investigating possible hate-crime motives. "But no one here is neglecting that aspect of the case," Kennedy said.
Without more information from the FBI, Kennedy said, he can only speculate that federal authorities want to ensure that hate-crime possibilities are investigated early.
In 2009, Kennedy said, a congressional finding concluded that local authorities can investigate bias crimes more effectively with federal assistance.
"Federal jurisdiction over certain violent crimes motivated by bias enables Federal, State and local authorities to work together as partners in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes," the finding said.
It added: "The problem of crimes motivated by bias is sufficiently serious, widespread and interstate in nature as to warrant Federal assistance to States [and] local jurisdictions."
Federal law requires the Department of Justice to issue an annual report of hate crimes reported by local authorities. The 2013 report shows no reports of religiously motivated hate crimes in Chapel Hill or Raleigh, where the students' families live.
The report listed 17 religiously motivated hate crimes in North Carolina in 2013. Nationally, 5,992 "single bias" hate crimes were reported, 17% of them involving religion.
Elgamal, of the Islamic Assn., described the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region as "a very tolerant area." He said Muslims have good relations with police and the FBI, and hold regular interfaith meetings with Christians and Jews.
About 38,000 Muslims live in the area, Elgamal said, drawn by high-tech firms, three major research universities and two large medical complexes at UNC and nearby Duke University in Durham.
Elgamal said the association has been inundated with support from people of all religions, both locally and internationally. But he said it has also received a few emails praising the killings and condemning Muslims.
"We pray for these people to be better guided," he said. "We can’t meet anger with anger."
Follow David Zucchino on Twitter @davidzucchino.