An act of hate or a petty dispute over a parking space? That's the question on the minds of Americans after three Muslim students were shot and killed in North Carolina Tuesday.
The victims, all shot in the head, have been identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh, Chapel Hill Police said. The two female victims were sisters.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, turned himself in, and has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. He will be appointed a public defender, although he was denied bail. He has already stood his first court hearing at the Durham County Detention Center.
It remains unclear if the victims' religion fueled Hicks' actions, which Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue called a "senseless and tragic act."
"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.
However, in a preliminary statement from Chapel Hill Police, spokesman Lt. Joshua Mecimore said the crime was "motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking," according to newsobserver.com.
"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."
He added that just a week ago, his daughter had told him of a "hateful neighbor."
"Honest to God, she said, 'He hates us for what we are and how we look,'" Abu-Salha told the Charlotte Observer.
National Muslim organizations such as the Council of American Islamic Relations, as well as practicing students from around the country, are calling for the investigators to determine if religion played a role in the fatal shootings as quickly as possible.
"Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case," said Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR, in a statement.
According to USA Today, Hicks' Facebook reads "Atheists for Equality" and he often posted quotes critical of religion. Three weeks ago, he also posted a photo of a .38-caliber revolver, which he confirmed was loaded and belonged to him.
Often heard complaining about noise and parking in his community, Hicks was described by neighbor Samantha Maness as a very angry man.
Jillian Pikora, a 26-year-old Apopka resident, attended high school and college with the victims, who she said were very active in their local mosque and Muslim Student Associations. They also lent a guiding hand during her own conversion to Islam.
"They just exemplified being a good person, of any faith," she said.
Others who knew them spoke of their loving personalities.
"He was a completely genuine guy. Loving, caring, friendly, smart," said Muneeb Mustafa, 23, of Cary, North Carolina, who attended the same Raleigh mosque as Barakat. "He was an ideal human being. He was a role model."
After speaking with Barakat's brother, Pikora said there was no dispute over a parking space. The numerous hate messages Hicks posted to a community Facebook page leads the family to believe the students were targeted for their religion. The Facebook page has since been taken down, but Pikora said the victims had bore the brunt of harassment from Hicks since December.
While living in North Carolina, Pikora said she became aware of the racial tensions that exist in the small town of Chapel Hill, a city with about a third of the population of Orlando. Hicks, the family told her, explicitly told Barakat, Yusor and Razan he didn't want Muslims living in his community.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said his town, which has been "rocked" by the triple murder, "is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter," a tagline that has taken the Internet by storm.
"Why would he go to the house and shoot all three of them [over a parking space]? There has to be another motive," said UCF graduate and Muslim Kissimmee resident Katelyn Picard.
But Pikora and Picard recognize the very possible reality that the whole incident could be chalked up to a dispute over a parking space — a scary thought for these Muslim women.
"What if something happens to me? Who's going to believe me?" said Picard, who added she's even debating whether to wear her hijab after the incident.
The perpetuation of Islamophobic ideals in America will only feed the fire of terrorist organizations looking for allies, Pikora said. Instead, she hopes non-extremists can work to unite communities and educate others about acceptance and the Muslim faith — just like Barakat, Yusor and Razan tried to do while they were alive.
"It's not safe to be Muslim in America. It's not safe to be Jewish in America. It's not safe to be anything in America unless you're a white Christian," Picard said.
With nearly 35,000 likes already, a Facebook page called "Our Three Winners" has been created to honor the victims and share official announcements. A vigil at the UCF Reflecting Pond is also scheduled for Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Caroline Glenn is the News Editor at the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter@bycarolineglenn or email her at CarolineGCentralFloridaFuture.com.