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Suspect in Chapel Hill killings described as troublemaker, obsessed with parking

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 2/12/2015 Sarah Kaplan
This image provided by the Durham County Sheriff's office shows a booking photo of Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who was arrested on three counts of murder early Wednesday Feb. 11, 2015. Police were responding to a report of gunshots around 5:15 p.m. Tuesday when they found three people who were pronounced dead at the scene. The dead were identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, of Chapel Hill; Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh. © AP Photo/Durham County Sheriff This image provided by the Durham County Sheriff's office shows a booking photo of Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who was arrested on three counts of murder early Wednesday Feb. 11, 2015. Police were responding to a report of gunshots around 5:15 p.m. Tuesday when they found three people who were pronounced dead at the scene. The dead were identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, of Chapel Hill; Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.

Craig Stephen Hicks was feared by his neighbors. He obsessed over parking spaces and always appeared angry. He used to watch a movie about a man who goes on a shooting rampage over and over again. His ex-wife said he found the film hilarious.

And just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Hicks went to his neighbors’ apartment and shot the three people inside, authorities say.

What police have not established is why he allegedly did it. A preliminary investigation revealed that Hicks had previously clashed with his victims — husband and wife Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Abu-Salha’s sister Razan — over parking spots in front of the apartment complex where they lived.

But the victims’ family and many onlookers around the world believe Hicks had another motivation: his victims’ religion. All three were Muslims of Arab descent, and the two women both wore religious head scarves.

In his social media profiles and in the accounts of those who knew him, Hicks resists easy categorization. He describes himself on what appears to be his Facebook profile as a “gun-toting liberal” and an “anti-theist,” and vehemently condemned all forms of religion. But at a news conference Wednesday his wife, Karen, described him as someone who “champions the rights of others” and would not have killed three people because of their faith.

[Keeping vigil for Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha]

[Chapel Hill murders: Why hate crimes are so hard to prove]

Hicks was known for his temper and confrontational behavior. His ex-wife, Cynthia Hurley, who divorced Hicks about 17 years ago, said his favorite film was “Falling Down,” in which a disgruntled and unemployed defense industry worker played by Michael Douglas goes on a shooting rampage.

“That always freaked me out,” Hurley told the Associated Press. “He watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all.”

Meanwhile, Karen Hicks’s attorney, Robert Maitland, has suggested that mental illness may have led to the shooting.

“Obviously it’s not within the range of normal behavior for someone to shoot three people over parking issues,” Maitland said at Karen Hicks’s news conference. He declined to provide further details.

[Muslims doubt that religion wasn’t a factor in killing of three in N.C.]

At Durham Technical Community College, where Hicks was studying to be a paralegal, he was seen as an “exemplary student,” school spokesman Carver Weaver told the Charlotte Observer. Hicks was described as opinionated but high-achieving and was said to help other students with their work.

But among his neighbors at the Finley Forest condominium complex, the leafy Chapel Hill enclave where Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha also lived, Hicks was infamous for being loud and aggressive.

“He kind of made everyone feel uncomfortable and unsafe,” resident Samantha Maness told the Raleigh News and Observer. “He was very angry anytime I saw him.”

Maness describes Hicks as particularly fixated on parking and noise. He was known for having unfamiliar cars towed and had confronted Maness for being too loud. Last year, she said, residents convened a meeting to discuss Hicks’s behavior, but nothing came of it.

Barakat, who lived near Hicks, was reportedly a frequent target of this anger. Barakat had lived there with his friend Imad Ahmad until December, when he married Abu-Salha. Ahmad told the Associated Press that Hicks would come to their door about once a month to complain that the two men were parking in a visitor’s spot as well as their own.

“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 in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “He did it again after [Barakat and Abu-Salha] got married.”

Mohammad Abu-Salha, Yusor’s father, said his daughter told him about multiple confrontations with Hicks during the seven or so weeks she lived in the apartment. (Chapel Hill Police said they knew nothing of these incidents until after the killings.)

“This man came knocking at the door and fighting about everything with a gun on his belt, more than twice,” he told CNN. “She told us, ‘Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look.’ ”

But Maness said that Hicks had “equal opportunity anger” toward Finley Forest residents.

“I have seen and heard him be very unfriendly toward a lot of people in this community,” she said.

Hicks comes across as confrontational on social media as he was toward his neighbors, particularly when it comes to religion. In the “About” section of his Facebook profile he wrote: “If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I. But given that it doesn’t, and given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I’d say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it, as does every rational, thinking person on this planet.” He also describes himself as a Second Amendment rights advocate and was licensed to carry a concealed firearm. He posted an image of his loaded revolver three weeks before the shooting.

Such posts drew attention as speculation grew that the killings had been motivated by religious hatred. But Karen Hicks rejected that idea during her news conference.

“That is one thing that I do know about him. He often champions on his Facebook page for the rights of many individuals. For same-sex marriages, abortion, race,” she said. “He just believed — and I know, that’s just one of the things I know about him — that everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are or what you believe.”

“It is a simple matter, it has nothing to do with the religious faith of the victims,” Maitland, Hicks’s attorney, added. “It has nothing to with anything but the mundane issue of this man being frustrated day in and day out with not being able to park where he wanted to park and, unfortunately, these victims were there at the wrong time at the wrong place.”

Chapel Hill Police said that they will continue to investigate the possibility that the shooting was hate-motivated. Hicks was transferred from Durham County Jail to Central Prison in Raleigh on Wednesday because of safety concerns, authorities said, though they did not indicate whether there had been threats against him. He is being held without bail until his probable cause hearing, which is set for March 4.

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