The man who killed three Muslim University of North Carolina students on Tuesday night turned himself in to police and has been charged with murder in the incident.
Authorities say self-professed atheist 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks allegedly shot the students in an apartment complex near the Chapel Hill campus after posting comments on his Facebook page that have led to speculation that the incident may have been tied to the students' religion. The victims were married couple Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23 and Yusor Mohammad, 21 and Mohammad's 19-year-old sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, according to CNN.
The couple had been married for just over a month and Mohammad was planning to begin studies at the UNC School of Dentistry in the fall, where her husband was a second-year student whose work included launching a fundraising site to provide dental care to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Hicks was being held without bond on three counts of first-degree murder at press time and was slated to make his first court appearance on Wednesday morning (Feb. 11).
Soon after news of the murders broke, the hashtags #chapelhillshooting and #MuslimLivesMatter were top trending topics accompanied by photos of the victims on a Facebook memorial page.
CNN said it couldn't independently verify the source of a widely shared Facebook post that was attributed to Hicks in which he allegedly wrote, "When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I." (At press time it did not appear that that post was still on Hicks' Facebook page.)
A page that is attributed to Hicks featured dozens of rants against organized religion and in favor of atheism. Chapel Hill station WRAL reported that local police believe that the incident may have been preceded by an ongoing dispute over parking at the complex, but that they are also going to "exhaust every lead to determine" if the crime was hate-motivated.
"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," Council on American-Islamic Relations National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement.