CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — More than 5,000 people gathered for solemn funeral and prayer services Thursday for three young adults gunned down in what police call a long-running dispute over parking spaces.
The crowd was so large it had to be moved from a mosque to a nearby university athletic field. The deaths of a newlywed Muslim couple and the wife's sister had quickly gained international attention, with some questioning about whether the violence had some connection to their faith.
Before the prayer service, relatives viewed the victims' bodies in a small building apart from one of Raleigh's largest mosques, where the families have long been members. The service then moved across the street to the fields owned by North Carolina State University, where two victims had graduated and one was a student.
The service began after midday Muslim prayers. The crowd was solemn and silent — only a few children crying in the distance could be heard. A large blue plastic prayer mat lay on the field, and some brought their own to use.
Three coffins sat before a covered stage — in gray, white and silver. At the service's end, about a dozen people carried each to hearses, which headed to an Islamic cemetery outside Raleigh.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were found dead Tuesday at the newlywed couple's home near the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus. Barakat attended graduate school there; his wife had planned to join him.
Those gathered Thursday — N.C. State police estimated a crowd of 5,500 — grappled with questions about whether the violence had some connection to their Muslim faith. The father of the two slain women says hatred of Muslims might explain why the dispute erupted into death. Officials have said they're still investigating any possibilities the crime was hate-motivated.
"We are definitely certain that our daughters were targeted for their religion," the women's father, Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "... This is a moment of truth. I have just viewed their bodies."
Charged with three counts of first-degree murder is Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who has described himself as a "gun toting" atheist. Neighbors describe him as angry and confrontational. His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the 1993 shooting-rampage movie "Falling Down" and showed "no compassion at all" for other people.
His current wife, Karen Hicks, said that her husband "champions the rights of others" and that the killings "had nothing do with religion or the victims' faith." She then issued another brief statement, saying she's divorcing him.
The newlywed wife's father said his daughter "felt that he was hateful and he did not like them, who they were and the way they looked."
Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha also said he had urged law enforcement to look beyond their explanation of the parking spat in the complex where two of the victims and the suspect lived.
"This is not a parking dispute," he said. "These children were executed with shots in the back of the head." Police have said they are not commenting on evidence in the case, including manner of death.
"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," Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue said in an email Wednesday.
Several people who knew the victims spoke about them at a Wednesday night vigil, describing selflessness and kindness.
Barakat and wife Abu-Salha were newlyweds who helped the homeless and raised money to help Syrian refugees in Turkey. They met while helping to run the Muslim Student Association at N.C. State before he began pursuing an advanced degree in dentistry at UNC. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, who graduated in December, planned to join him at dentistry school in the fall.
Abu-Salha was visiting them Tuesday from Raleigh, where she studied design at N.C. State.
Hicks had less success. His wife said Hicks, unemployed and driving a 15-year-old car, had been studying to become a paralegal.
A Second Amendment rights advocate with a concealed weapons permit, Hicks often complained about organized religion on Facebook. "Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative," Hicks wrote.
Imad Ahmad, who lived in the condo with friends before they were married, said Hicks complained about monthly that the two men were parking in a visitor space and in their assigned spot.
"He would come over to the door, knock on the door and then have a gun on his hip saying, 'You guys need to not park here,'" said Ahmad, a graduate student at UNC. "He did it again after they got married."
Hicks and his neighbors complained to the property managers, who apparently didn't intervene. "They told us to call the police if the guy came and harassed us again," Ahmad said.
Namee Barakat, father of Daeh Barakat, said Thursday that he heard after the shootings that Craig Hicks had visited the condo once before. "He raised his jacket and he showed them his gun, and Yusor told her dad that this guy, he does not like us," he said. "He does not like our hijab. She was concerned."
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