Chapel Hill: Thousands of people were expected to attend a prayer service for three Muslims gunned down in North Carolina, as police investigated whether religious hatred played any role in the shooting which authorities said was sparked by a dispute over parking spaces.
The alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, describes himself as a "gun toting" atheist. Neighbors say he always seemed angry and frequently confronted his neighbors, sometimes while wearing a handgun on his hip.
His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the shooting-rampage movie "Falling Down," and showed "no compassion at all" for other people.
The killings are fueling outrage among people who blame anti-Muslim rhetoric for hate crimes. A Muslim advocacy organization pressed authorities to investigate possible religious bias. Many posted social media updates with the hashtags #MuslimLivesMatter and #CallItTerrorism.
About 2,000 people attended a candlelight vigil for the victims in the heart of UNC's campus Wednesday evening.
"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," Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue said in an email.
Hicks' current wife, Karen Hicks, said he "champions the rights of others" and said the killings "had nothing do with religion or the victims' faith." Later Wednesday, she issued another statement, saying she's divorcing him.
Hicks appeared in court Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder in the deaths Tuesday of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. He pleaded indigence and was appointed a public defender.
Friends and family were gathering for funeral and burial services Thursday.
Officers were summoned by a neighbor who called police reporting five to 10 shots and the sound of people screaming.
The women's father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said police told him each was shot in the head inside the couple's apartment, and that he, for one, is convinced it was a hate crime.
"The media here bombards the American citizen with Islamic, Islamic, Islamic terrorism and makes people here scared of us and hate us and want us out. So if somebody has any conflict with you, and they already hate you, you get a bullet in the head," said Abu-Salha, who is a psychiatrist.
Chapel Hill Police asked the FBI for help in their probe, and Ripley Rand, the US Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said his office was monitoring the investigation.