After the shootings in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Tuesday that left three young Muslims dead, police have been searching for possible motives as friends, family and people around the world mourn. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been aiding local police as they try to gather evidence, but they have since added that they are going to start an inquiry of their own, according to a statement issued Thursday.
“The FBI is continuing to provide assistance to the Chapel Hill Police Department to process evidence related to a triple homicide investigation. The FBI has also opened a parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated related to the case.”
Craig Stephen Hicks, the 46-year-old former car salesman charged with the murders, was allegedly involved in a dispute over parking with the students, who lived nearby. After shooting the three students — Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Mr. Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — Hicks turned himself in.
Despite the apparent dispute over parking at the Chapel Hill apartments where they lived, family members of the slain students are calling Hicks’ actions a hate crime. The sisters’ father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, explained that he didn’t think something as minor as a parking dispute would cause someone to murder them.
“Please involve the FBI. Please investigate. Please look carefully. I have talked to lawyers. I have talked to law professors. This has hate crime written all over it.”
Others have since pointed to posts that Hicks made on Facebook, where he expressed a strong disdain for religion. According to one of Yusor’s friends, Amira Ata, Hicks once confronted the students at their apartment over a noise dispute, armed with a rifle.
Hicks was also apparently obsessed with keeping the area in front of his condo in order. Another Chapel Hill resident, Shadi Wehbe, recounts that one of the victims visited him just weeks before, visibly disturbed about a note that had been left on her car.
“She seemed pretty shaken up. She asked if I could move my car one space over. Someone had left a nasty threatening note on her car telling her to move it. I didn’t ask her for details about what the note said. Wish I had at this point.”
According to a statement on the Town of Chapel Hill’s website, while Chapel Hill police believe the shooting was primarily fueled by the parking dispute, they aren’t going to leave out any possibilities.
“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,” said Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue.
This is where the FBI’s inquiry comes in. Whether someone is tried for committing a hate crime or not is usually up to the state, but because it is a federal crime to assault someone based on their “race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability,” the Justice Department can decide to add more charges, which would result in a far more serious sentence.
While Hick’s comments have generated an intense discussion over whether his atheism — or, more accurately, anti-theism — could have been a motivating factor, CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara said that his posts against religion would only go so far to proving that end.
“[It’s] one piece of evidence that suggests that he had a hatred or dislike for the Muslim community — potentially. If that was the only piece of evidence, I don’t think it’s enough, quite honestly.”
The three students were buried on Thursday after their funeral. While they are mourned by their Chapel Hill community, their funeral was attended by thousands, and news of what happened has since spread across social media, resulting in prayer and solidarity worldwide.
[Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images]