Self-proclaimed atheist charged in slayings of Muslim students near UNC Chapel Hill

Jason Sickles
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, enters the courtroom Wednesday in Durham. (Reuters/Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer)

The middle-aged white man charged with fatally shooting three young Muslim students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a self-proclaimed atheist who rants about religion in general on Facebook.

There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being  which your religion does with self-righteous gusto,” the suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, wrote on Facebook, without calling out any specific religious doctrine.

He added: “... the moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend.

For now, Chapel Hill police say they are still investigating and have no evidence of a hate crime. Instead, they believe Tuesday’s killings were sparked by a long-standing dispute over parking spaces at the condominium complex where Hicks and two of the three victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, were neighbors. Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was also slain.

A makeshift memorial for the victims at the University of North Carolina. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Chris Seward)

But Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the women’s father, said Yusor told family members last week that she had “a hateful neighbor” who didn’t like their religion and culture. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Dr. Abu-Salha, a local psychiatrist, said police told him Hicks shot the three inside their apartment.

“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” the father told the newspaper Wednesday. “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.”

Last month, Hicks, 46, posted a photo of a holstered gun sitting on a kitchen scale.

“Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader,” Hicks wrote with the photo.

Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, who were married Dec. 27, lived in the unit next door to Hicks and his wife. The father said his daughter wore a traditional wore a Muslim headscarf.

“Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look,’” Dr. Abu-Salha told the News & Observer.

On Wednesday afternoon, Karen Hicks told reporters that her husband didn’t act out of bigotry.

“I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing up do with religion or the victims’ faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed,” Karen Hicks said.

Imad Ahmad, 24, was Barakat’s roommate for more than a year before the slain couple got married. He told the AP that Hicks would knock on their door about once a month to complain that they were parking in one of the spaces designated for visitors.

“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, recalling that Hicks carried the handgun in a holster.

A screen shot of the gun photo Craig Hicks posted to Facebook in January.

An attorney for Karen Hicks, Michele English, said Craig Hicks had a concealed-weapons permit.

In Facebook posts, Hicks’ anti-religious views appeared to target all faiths. Two days before the shootings, he shared a post titled, “Why are radical Christians and radical Muslims so opposed to each others’ influence when they agree about so many ideological issues?”

Hicks, a paralegal studies student at Durham County Technical College since 2012, also wrote on Facebook that he doesn’t care for political parties, only constitutional rights.

“Some call me a gun-toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative,” he posted.

His interests on Facebook seem to run the gamut from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender causes to Second Amendment rights and sports humor. A day before the shooting, he shared a funny puppy video on his timeline.

“I don't fall into any category, as I do not follow any decision blindly for a group,” Hicks wrote about himself.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights organization, told Yahoo News that Hicks is not in its database of known extremists. According to his Facebook page, Hicks is a fan of the Alabama-based hate watchdog group.

According to public records, Hicks has no previous criminal history. On Wednesday, a judge ordered him held without bail on three counts of first-degree murder. A probable cause hearing is scheduled for March 4. Police say Hicks is cooperating with investigators.

Meanwhile, in a message to residents, the mayor of Chapel Hill tried to calm fears and reassure the community after the deaths.

“The Chapel Hill Police Department is using all available resources to determine whether hate was a motivating factor,” Mark Kleinschmidt said in a statement. “All we know for certain at this time is that it was a senseless and tragic act surrounding a longstanding dispute.

“I share strong feelings of outrage and shock with my fellow citizens and University students as well as concerned people everywhere. We do not know whether anti-Muslim bias played a role in this crime, but I do recognize the fear that members of our community may feel. Chapel Hill is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter.”

(This story has been updated since it was originally published.)

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).