More than 2,000 people attended a vigil at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday to mourn a dentistry student, his wife, and her 19-year-old sister, who authorities said were fatally shot by a neighbor motivated by an ongoing dispute over parking spaces.
But the stories and remembrances were told amid a cloud of doubt from the families of those slain, who believe all three may have been killed because they are Muslim. Authorities have said they have no evidence that the killings were motivated by any bias other than rage.
"If, and it is quite possible, that this was an act based off of evil and a scared ignorant man, do not let ignorance propagate in your life," Farris Barakat, the brother of the slain dentistry student, Deah Barakat, told the crowd.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, is charged with first-degree murder for the deaths of Deah Barakat, 23; 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.
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Chapel Hill police said they were called to Summerwalk Circle on a report of shots fired at 5:11 p.m. Tuesday and found all three victims dead of gunshot wounds. The women’s father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said police told him all three were shot in the head.
Police Chief Chris Blue said the investigators believe the motive was “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”
"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 in a statement.
Ripley Rand, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said the killings were "an isolated incident" and "not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims in North Carolina." An attorney representing Hicks’ family said Hicks had problems with many of his neighbors and that the three slain “were there at the wrong time and the wrong place.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt told the mourners at UNC Wednesday that, "I stand here tonight like you, with a broken heart," but seemed to caution against jumping to conclusions.
"I have questions. I have questions about why and how this could happen. And I know you do, too," Kleinschmidt said. "And we are going to struggle, we are going to hear thoughts from others who will try to label this experience as one thing or another … But what I really believe we can hold onto, and what I think will be the greatest legacy of the three lives we lost, would be to remember who we are."
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Deah Barakat’s sister, Suzanne Barakat, who attended UNC for nine years, said the love and support that so many have shown in the wake of the killings has been a comfort. "It’s what we need," she said.
"Having attended many vigils myself in support of so many causes that this amazing institution is proud of, I never once thought I would one day be here for my brother," she said.
— with Christi Lowe