Last Wednesday, three young Sudanese immigrants in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were shot multiple times at what law enforcement officials have dubbed a "party house" for young people of African descent. The victims — two of whom were Muslim — were US citizens.
Though Fort Wayne police haven't yet pinpointed a motive for the killings, they are convinced that the murders of 23-year-old Mohamedtaha Omar, 20-year-old Adam Mekki, and 17-year-old Muhannad Tairab on February 24 should not be classified as a hate crime.
Fort Wayne Police Department spokesperson Michael Joyner told VICE News that the department had reached this conclusion "definitively" and "with all certainty."
"We know that it's not a hate crime," he said. "There have been some in the media who were quick to suggest it was, because the three individuals, all US citizens, were from another country and they earmarked them as Muslims."
Mekki was Christian while Tairab and Omar were Musilm, the Associated Press reported.
Joyner could not explain how the department had determined that the murders were not a hate crime, citing the ongoing investigation, but offered that the house where the men were killed was linked to a man "familiar to law enforcement" who was involved in "gang-related activity."
The individual was not in the house when the murders occurred, he noted, adding that the victims were "welcome guests at the time — it wasn't unusual for them to be there as guests."
The three victims were discovered by others who had been at the house earlier in the day and then returned to find them dead.
The case has attracted attention due to a recent surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric following terror attacks in Paris, where gunmen aligned with the Islamic State group killed 130 people, and in San Bernardino, California, where a radicalized Muslim couple killed 14 people. Following those incidents, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and called for authorities to closely monitor mosques.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that the murders in Fort Wayne are notable for their similarity to the murder one year ago of three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In that case, police also asserted early in the investigation that the murders were not hate-related, despite evidence that the perpetrator had harassed the victims, two of whom wore headscarves, and posted anti-religious and Muslim messages on social media.
Police said the motive in those killings was a dispute over a parking space, but the family and others still assert that the murderer targeted his victims due to their religion.
"When you have three young people killed execution-style, people think back to Chapel Hill. The Muslim community and others who saw that case believe there was a bias motive at least in part for the killings, " Hooper said. "So looking at the [Fort Wayne] case, it reminds everyone of that case, so there's concern."
Hooper pointed out that the fact that one of the victims in the Fort Wayne murders was Christian does not disqualify the incident as a hate crime.
"That wouldn't change the situation. Bigots not being brain surgeons, they wouldn't necessarily make that distinction," he said. "We have Hispanic people who are routinely discriminated against because they are seen as Arab or Muslim, and Sikhs killed because people think they're Muslim because they wear a turban and a beard."
Law enforcement authorities do sometimes collect evidence that leads them to believe that a crime is not anti-Muslim related, Hooper noted, and said he would wait to hear the evidence in this case before judging the Fort Wayne Police Department's determination that the murders were not a hate crime.
"If they reached a conclusion based on the fact that no one wrote 'Death to Islam' in red paint, that's one thing, or if they have inside knowledge that hasn't been released to public, that's another," he said. "If they have conclusive evidence one way or the other, it will be released quickly because of the [Muslim] community's concerns."
Some activists and others have started a social media campaign on Twitter to draw attention to the murders, using the hashtag #OurThreeBoys.
At least two of the men's funerals were held over the weekend. On Sunday, Hamzah Sharif, the imam of the Islamic Center of Ft. Wayne, posted a statement to Facebook thanking the Fort Wayne Police Department and the community for being united "regardless of faiths and nationalities."
Follow Benjamin Gilbert on Twitter: @benrgilbert