RALEIGH, N.C. — The suspect in the deaths of three Muslim college students in North Carolina had at least a dozen firearms stashed in his home, according to search warrants released Friday as world leaders decried the shootings.
Warrants filed in Durham County Superior Court listed an inventory of weapons seized by police from the Chapel Hill condominium of Craig Stephen Hicks, the 46-year-old charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
The warrants list four handguns recovered from the home Hicks shared with his wife, in addition to a pistol the suspect had with him when he turned himself in about an hour after the shootings. The warrants also list two shotguns and six rifles, including a military-style AR-15 carbine. Police also recovered numerous loaded magazines and cases of ammunition.
Eight spent shell-casings were found in the neighboring apartment of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21. Also killed was the wife’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
Relatives say all were shot in the head. Authorities haven’t disclosed exactly how the victims died.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” President Barack Obama said in Washington.
In New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply moved” by thousands thronging Thursday’s funeral. Jordan’s Embassy in Washington said its ambassador visited the families Friday. Yusor Abu-Salha was born in Jordan, as where her parents. The younger sister was born in the U.S.
Police in Chapel Hill said they have yet to uncover evidence Hicks acted out of religious animus, though they are investigating the possibility. As a potential motive, they cited a longstanding dispute about parking spaces at the condo community where he lived in the same building as the victims.
The FBI is now conducting a “parallel preliminary inquiry” to determine whether any federal laws, including hate crime laws, were violated.
Family members of the slain students are pressing for hate crime charges against the alleged shooter, but legal experts say such cases are relative rare and can be difficult to prove.
“This has hate crime written all over it,” said Dr. Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, speaking Thursday at the funeral for his daughters and son-in-law. “It was not about a parking spot.”
To win a hate-crime conviction, however, legal experts say prosecutors would have to prove Hicks deliberately targeted those killed because of religion, race or national origin.
North Carolina does not have a specific “hate crime” statute, though it has laws covering such acts of “ethnic intimidation” as hanging a noose, burning a cross or setting fire to a church.
Hicks will likely face either the death penalty or life in prison if convicted on murder charges. Willoughby said evidence about motive would have a role in the prosecution.
“Hate crime’ is really just another way of describing the motive for why a crime was committed,” Willoughby said. “As a prosecutor, you want the jury to understand the motive for the crime and you would present the very same information … and look at his mindset, and use these things to prove motive.”
Hicks, who was unemployed and taking community college classes, staunchly supported Second Amendment gun rights and had a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Neighbors described an angry man often in confrontations over parking or loud music, sometimes with a gun holstered at his hip. His social media posts often discussed firearms, including a photo posted of a .38-caliber revolver.
Regarding religion, Hicks, an avowed atheist, appeared critical of all faiths in Facebook posts. During the 2010 controversy over on old building near the site of the 9/11 attacks could be converted into an Islamic community center, Hicks took Christians to task.
“Seems an overwhelming majority of Christians in this country feel that the Muslims are using the Ground Zero mosque plans to ‘mark their conquest,”‘ he wrote. “Bunch of hypocrites, everywhere I’ve been in this country there are churches marking the Christian conquest of this country from the Native Americans.”
Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols, with jurisdiction over the shootings, said he hasn’t made up his mind whether to bring any ethnic intimidation charges in the case.
Federal authorities could potentially bring separate charges against Hicks for violating the victims’ civil rights. Federal hate-crimes laws give prosecutors wide latitude to bring charges for violent acts triggered by race, ethnicity, religion or perceived sexual orientation.
In 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, law enforcement agencies nationwide reported 5,796 “hate crime incidents,” though it’s unclear how many yielded criminal convictions.