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Chapel Hill killer’s rage went beyond parking dispute


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. » On the last day of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha’s life, it was too cold to run.

The 19-year-old North Carolina State University sophomore was training with a friend for a half-marathon in Raleigh. But when her design class let out after noon that Tuesday, Feb. 10, the wind chill was 30 degrees — painful for a North Carolinian. Instead, she hopped into her red Toyota Corolla and set off on the 25-mile drive to the Chapel Hill condominium where her newlywed sister, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, had recently moved in with her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat.

That evening, at 5:11 p.m., a woman who had just gotten off the bus near the condominium complex heard gunshots and screams and called 911. The Chapel Hill police arrived to find Barakat, 23, dead beside the front door, bleeding from the head. Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha lay lifeless in the kitchen. An hour later, their neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, turned himself in to the sheriff’s office in Pittsboro, 20 miles south.

Since then, in the absence of hard facts about Hicks’ motives, two competing narratives have emerged. The first, which spread almost instantly around the world on social media, was that the shootings were an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Hicks’ wife, Karen Haggerty Hicks, suggested another motive. The killings, she said at a news conference the next day, had nothing to do with the victims’ faith, but were "related to a longstanding parking dispute that my husband had with the neighbors."

But even Karen Hicks’ lawyer, Robert N. Maitland II, acknowledges the parking dispute theory was speculation on her part. "Here’s the thing: Nobody knows," he said. "Why did he lose it that particular day?" He described her Feb. 11 news conference as an effort to prevent panic.

Craig Hicks has confessed to murder, said Lt. Joshua Mecimore, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

A motive for the shooting may never be known. But interviews with more than a dozen of the victims’ friends and family members, lawyers, police officers and others, make two central points: before the shootings, the students took concerted steps to appease a menacing neighbor, and none were parked that day in a way that would have set off an incident involving their cars.

If those accounts do not prove what kind of malice was in Hicks’ heart, the details that emerge indicate that whatever happened almost certainly was not a simple dispute over parking.

A Different Kind of Neighbor

The murders happened at Finley Forest, a complex on the eastern edge of this city popular with graduate students at the nearby University of North Carolina. Karen Hicks owns 270 Summerwalk Circle, a second-floor unit in Building 20 that looks out south over the parking lot. Her husband moved in after the couple married seven years ago; it was his second marriage after a disastrous first.

The contrast between the paunchy, balding Craig Hicks and the rest of the complex’s residents was stark. Many were aspiring professionals and academics at a premier public university. Craig Hicks was unemployed, taking night classes at a community college in hopes of becoming a paralegal. Karen Hicks told her lawyer that Hicks would stare out the second-floor window, obsessing over neighbors’ parties, patterns and parking.

One of those neighbors was Barakat, an athletic 6-foot-3 graduate of North Carolina State with an electric smile. His father bought 272 Summerwalk Circle, a ground-level apartment on Building 20’s north side, in 2013, so he could live there while studying dentistry at the University of North Carolina.

The neighbors’ relationship became testier when Yusor Abu-Salha started spending time at the apartment after the engagement, said Barakat’s then-roommate, Imad Ahmad. In October, Craig Hicks came knocking while they were cleaning up from a dinner party where they had played the board game Risk. He growled that they had woken up his wife, lifting his shirt to reveal a holstered gun. The students did not call the police, but there was little the authorities could have done if they had. Craig Hicks had a concealed-carry permit.

Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha were married Dec. 27, in a luminous ceremony in Raleigh. Ahmad moved out, and she got ready to move in. First, though, came the honeymoon — Los Angeles for a Lakers’ game, then the beach in Mazatlan, Mexico. As a wedding gift, their parents began renovating Barakat’s former bachelor apartment.

Craig Hicks was getting more aggressive. On Jan. 7, Yusor Abu-Salha texted her husband to warn guests not to park near the house when they came to visit.

"I just got yelled at for it by that crazy neighbor who said we are only allowed two spots," she wrote.

On Feb. 5, Craig Hicks got more bad news: A judge had ordered a March 19 hearing over $14,189.54 in unpaid child support to his first wife, according to court records.

He was undeniably obsessed with parking. Each unit got permits for up to two cars, but only one assigned spot. Building 20 had 13 spaces. Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha were assigned space 20B. The next, 20C, belonged to Karen Hicks. Five spaces in the middle were unassigned and could be used for extra cars. Drivers also regularly parked on the side street.

The housing association allowed residents to have improperly parked cars towed. But Craig Hicks abused this power until the housing association asked him to stop, his wife’s lawyer said. According to a police search warrant, he kept "pictures and detailed notes on parking activity" on his computer.

By mid-January, friends were becoming convinced that Craig Hicks was obsessing over the couple, particularly Yusor Abu-Salha. They suspected it had to do with the way she dressed.

"If you look at Deah, he looks like your average white guy," said Nida Allam, a close friend. "But Yusor wears the head scarf. And so does Razan."

To prevent further problems, Barakat printed out a copy of the parking map and distributed it to family and friends. He highlighted his assigned space and all the unassigned spots in the lot where they could safely park.

Ahmad still thought the couple should report Craig Hicks to the housing association. But Yusor Abu-Salha thought that angering him would only make things worse. She had been raised to assume that people were good if given a chance, Allam said.

"Her parents told her just to be nice to him," she said. "Maybe he’ll change."

A Problem With Religion

There is no question Craig Hicks had a problem with religion. His Facebook page was full of quotations and memes denigrating Christianity. On Jan. 27, he shared a graphic that may have made reference to Islam: "People say there is nothing that can solve the Middle East problem … I say there is something. Atheism."

By sharp contrast, religion was Barakat and the Abu-Salhas’ lodestar. They woke each morning to offer the predawn Fajr prayer, a feat made more difficult when Barakat stayed up late to watch his hero, Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors point guard, play on the West Coast.

The sisters both wore head scarves, which Razan Abu-Salha liked to dress up with a collection of multicolored snapback hats. Barakat hung prayer beads from the mirror of his Honda Accord. His version of a halal diet was to eat cereal, sometimes three meals a day: Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Froot Loops were favorites. Yusor Abu-Salha craved the burrito bowl at Chipotle; she just avoided the pork carnitas. Beside the door to their apartment was a wooden plaque bearing the Arabic phrase "Alhumdulillah" — thanks be to God.

On the morning of Feb. 10, Barakat took the Chapel Hill Transit bus to campus, leaving his gray Accord in its assigned parking spot, 20B, a kaffiyeh draped across the front seat and his prayer beads dangling.

Yusor Abu-Salha drove her Volkswagen Jetta to her job in the accounting department at Smart Courier Inc. — a logistics service where Barakat’s older brother, Farris, is a business manager — 20 miles north in Mebane. The job was temporary. Yusor Abu-Salha, who had graduated with a degree in human biology at North Carolina State, had already been accepted to join Barakat at the University of North Carolina’s dental school that fall.

Around noon in Raleigh, Razan Abu-Salha left her design studio and went to a nearby Mediterranean restaurant for lunch. Afterward, she went to her parents’ house, where she lived and started texting with her older sister.

The older Abu-Salha did not want to go to Raleigh. She was going there on Thursday for a panel on marriage in Islam, and would see her family and friends then. When she told Razan Abu-Salha to meet her at the Chapel Hill apartment for dinner, the younger sister asked their mother if she would like to join them. "No," her mother replied. "I’ll see Yusor on Thursday."

Around 3:45 p.m., Razan Abu-Salha texted another friend to say she was about to leave for Chapel Hill.

Farris Barakat estimates Yusor Abu-Salha left the office in Mebane around 4 p.m. When she arrived home, she parked in 20E, one of the unassigned spots.

Razan Abu-Salha parked her Corolla on the street near the sidewalk leading to her sister and brother-in-law’s apartment, avoiding the parking lot completely. All three cars were in those positions as of the morning after the shooting. None were in Craig Hicks’ assigned spot.

Craig Hicks was home alone. His wife was out. He would call her only briefly that night, after his arrest, to say, as her lawyer put it, "This is not your fault, and have a good life." They have not spoken since.

At 4:35 p.m., one of Barakat’s friends happened to take a picture of him heading home on the bus and posted it to Instagram. Based on the bus’ timetable, he most likely arrived home between 4:41 and 4:51 p.m. The sisters were waiting inside. They had about half an hour at home, together, when the shots rang out.

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