The wife of the suspected killer of three students in an apartment near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus said her husband was motivated by a parking dispute and not because they were Muslim.
Karen Hicks made the remarks Wednesday after wide speculation had circulated that her husband, 46-year-old Craig Hicks, had killed the students over their faith.
"I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing up do with religion or the victims' faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed," Karen Hicks said, according to the Associated Press.
Craig Hicks turned himself into police shortly after the shooting Tuesday night and has since been charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Police are still investigating the shooting deaths of Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
Hicks appeared briefly in court Wednesday morning to confirm that he understood the charges and that he had submitted an indigency affidavit, which indicates that the defendant is unable to afford legal fees in the case,according to the Associated Press. The judge said a public defender would be appointed to represent Hicks.
A probable cause hearing has been scheduled for March 4. In the meantime, Hicks will be held without bond in Durham County Jail.
Authorities claim that Hick is cooperating with police and that a preliminary investigation revealed the suspected motivation for the crime was an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking, according to a statementreleased Wednesday morning.
"Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act," 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. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of these young people who lost their lives so needlessly."
On Wednesday, Barakat's brother, Farris, told ABC News that Hicks had previously confronted his brother about parking in the wrong space and had once shown up to the couple's house with a gun on his belt. Farris Barakat added he hadn't heard Hicks uttering any anti-Muslim sentiment before.
One resident of the same complex where the victims were found — located roughly three miles east of the campus — told the Associated Press that some of the parking spaces outside the building were assigned and others were not, but that parking had never been an issue and he had only been asked to move his car once.
Barakat was a second-year student in the School of Dentistry, according to a statement from the university. Mohammad was his wife, due to begin dental studies in the coming academic year. Abu-Salha was Mohammad's sister, and was a student at North Carolina State University.
Last Month, Barakat posted an anti-hate message on his Twitter account, which has since been retweeted thousands of times in the wake of his death.
It's so freaking sad to hear people saying we should 'kill Jews' or 'Kill Palestinians'. As if that's going to solve anything SMH
— Deah Barakat (@arabprodigy30)January 28, 2015
Barakat was also involved in raising money to provide dental care to Syrian refugees, and was planning to travel to Rihaniya, Turkey, in the coming summer. Donations to the fund have soared to over three times the fundraising goal stated on the page.
Police gave no other motive for the killings Wednesday, but posts from a Facebook page believed to belong to Hicks have been widely shared online, sparking speculation that the deaths were motivated by a Muslim bias.
The owner of this page frequently posted anti-religious messages. He is a member of groups including "Friends of Freedom From Religion Foundation" and "Atheism on Youtube." There are also multiple posts directly referring to Muslims, and a picture of a revolver on a weight scale with the comment, "Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds."
In one post, the page's author wrote, "When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I."
On January 11, another post on an alleged earlier incident in his parking lot read: "It is official, I am a grumpy old man. I now am sure of this, as when I saw a couple having sex in their vehicle in my parking lot a little bit ago instead of just ignoring it I called Chapel Hills finest on them."
VICE News could not independently verify that this page belonged to him.
The Freedom of Religion Foundation based in Wisconsin told VICE News Wednesday the Facebook page is not linked to their group in any way.
"We looked [Hicks] up right away, we've never heard of him and he'd not in our database as any kind of contact," said foundation spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It's a horrible tragedy and it is a hate crime and should be prosecuted as a hate crime. We condemn this."
There have also been numerous complaints on social media from posters who have accused the media of ignoring this attack because of the religion of the victims. The hashtags #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter were trending in both the US and the UK into Wednesday.
The father of the two women victims, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who is a psychiatrist, has called the shooting an anti-Muslim "hate crime" and says that regardless of what sparked the dispute, Hicks was driven to kill the victims because of their culture and religion.
"It was execution style, a bullet in every head," Abu-Salha said Wednesday morning. "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."
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent letters to the US Justice Department and Chapel Hill police Wednesday calling for the incident to be investigated and prosecuted as a hate crime.
"Given the circumstances, there is a high probability that the shooter targeted the victims because of their religion and national origin," the committee said in a statement. "The two sisters wore hijab, the Muslim head covering, and all three victims were of Arab descent."
A spokesman for the US attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina which includes Chapel Hill, said federal prosecutors were aware of hate crime allegations, but that further information was needed before the office launched a hate crime investigation.