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A preliminary investigation of the shooting deaths of three young Muslims near the University of North Carolina suggests the slayings were motivated by an ongoing parking dispute, police said.
A federal prosecutor added at a news conference Wednesday that the killings appear to be an "isolated incident."
"Events of yesterday are not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims in North Carolina," said Ripley Rand, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. His office had no immediate plans to be part of the investigation.
But the father of two of the young women shot dead branded the killings a "hate crime." The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on police to address "speculation" — much of it on social media — that bias may have been a motive in the killings.
The suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his neighbors. In a court appearance Wednesday morning, a judge ordered him to be held without bond and set a March 4 probable cause hearing.
The victims have been identified as Deah Barakat, 23, a second-year dentistry student; his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, who planned to start at the dentistry school this fall; and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, a student at North Carolina State University, university officials and police said. They were found at an apartment complex by officers who responded to reports of gunfire Tuesday afternoon.
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Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said their investigation suggests the killings stemmed from “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” Police are still looking through Hicks’ computers and emails. Hicks is cooperating with police, 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,” Blue said.
Hick’s’ attorney said the shooting stemmed from a "mundane issue" — parking in the neighborhood. "At this time, it’s our belief that this had nothing to do with any kind of particular relationship with the victims," Hicks family attorney said. "Mr. Hicks had problems with many of his neighbors — it had nothing to do with these particular neighbors."
Hicks' wife, Karen, added that her husband "championed" other people's rights on his Facebook page. "Like everyone else, I was completely shocked that this happened," she said.
UNC expressed "deep sadness" and in a statement, Chancellor Carol L. Folt, said Barakat was "well loved and respected within these walls, and we will feel his loss deeply." A Facebook group called “Our Three Winners” was set up Wednesday in tribute.
Barakat was raising money for a trip this summer to Turkey, where he planned to provide dental care to Syrian refugees, according to his fundraising page. Following the shooting, scores of people donated money and sent messages of condolence. By 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, the page had raised more than $24,000, far exceeding its goal of $20,000 by the end of July.
Ahmed Salim, who met Barakat at a Muslim Students Association event, told NBC News that his friend was "a model of the community." The 27-year-old from Atlanta said: "Everything you can think of as an American, everything a parent would be proud of their child for, that's what he was."
"He was always thinking about other people and always smiling," Salim added. "Everyone who knew him loved him — that’s why I just couldn't believe it when I heard the news."
The sisters' father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said the young women were "lovely ladies, who would never fight anyone." He said his oldest daughter, Yusor, had previously mentioned having difficulties with Hicks and that he spoke to her in a "very condescending tone." On Wednesday, dozens of supporters turned up at his Raleigh home as he became consumed with making plans to bury his daughters and his son-in-law.
He is hoping for justice, but added: "Justice that will not happen on this Earth, but will come later."
— with Christi Lowe
NBC News' Pete Williams contributed to this report.