US shooting suspect slams religion while defending liberty

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (AP) — If his Facebook page is any indication, Craig Hicks doesn’t hate Muslims. An avowed atheist, his online posts instead depict a man who despises religion itself, but nevertheless seems to support an individual’s right to his own beliefs.

“I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do,” the man now accused of killing three Muslim college students stated in one 2012 post over the proposed construction of a mosque near the World Trade Center site in New York.

Days after the shooting deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, a nuanced and sometimes contradictory portrait is emerging of the man charged in their slayings.

Police in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said they have yet to uncover any evidence that Hicks, 46, allegedly acted out of religious animus, though they are investigating the possibility. As a potential motive, they cited a dispute over parking spaces at the condo community where Hicks and two of the victims lived.

Hicks’ court-appointed lawyer, Stephen Freedman, said he could not comment on the case. Hicks was being held without bond.

In often publicly posted Facebook rants, Hicks was brazen about his disdain for all faiths. In one post regarding specific texts from the Quran, the Jewish Talmud and the Bible about battling nonbelievers, he wrote: “I wish they would exterminate each other!”

But he was just as passionate about personal freedom and liberty — championing an individual’s right to worship or not worship, legal abortion and gay marriage and, perhaps most fervently, the right under the U.S. Constitution to own and bear arms.

“I guess after the horrible tragedy early this week in Arizona, all Glock pistols will officially be labeled ‘assault weapons,'” he wrote following the January 2011 assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. “While I never cared for Glocks personally, it stinks that anyone would blame a firearm rather than the operator of such firearm for such a terrible act. I think I’ll start blaming McDonalds for my weight problem, Christianity for the Ku Klux Klan, and Islam for terrorism.”

One post included a photo of a revolver and the warning: “If you are anti-gun, defriend me NOW!!!”

Search warrants filed in court Friday listed a dozen firearms taken from Hicks’ condo unit, including four handguns, two shotguns and six rifles — one a military-style AR-15 carbine — and a large cache of ammunition. That’s in addition to the pistol the suspect had with him when he turned himself in.

Hicks’ 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Sarah Hurley, told The Associated Press that she shut him out of her life permanently years ago “for not only disrespecting the religious beliefs of others but bashing them on social media.” She verified that the Facebook page the AP reviewed was Hicks’, whom she refuses to even call “father.”

Hicks and Cynthia Hurley, who lives outside of Raleigh, were divorced about 17 years ago. She told the AP that back then, Hicks’ favorite movie was “Falling Down,” the 1993 Michael Douglas film about a laid-off engineer who goes on a shooting rampage.

She described a man who showed her no compassion, but didn’t recall him having any particular animosity toward Islam or other religions. Of Christianity, she said, “He went there and did that and chose not to.”

An Illinois native, Hicks moved to North Carolina in 2005. He married again several years later, and he and new wife Karen set up house in her two-bedroom condo in the quiet Finley Forest neighborhood of Chapel Hill. Online, he called Karen “my better half” and “the most wonderful woman in the world, she puts up with me.”

In a news conference after her husband’s arrest, Karen Hicks claimed to be as baffled as anyone about how a man who loves the Pittsburgh Steelers, the U.S. Constitution and dogs — especially his own black and brown mutt, Rocky — could have done something so vicious. She was adamant that the shootings stemmed from a long-simmering dispute over parking at their condo complex, not the victims’ faith.

“We were married for seven years, and that is one thing that I do know about him,” she said, lips quivering and hands trembling. “He just believed … everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are or what you believe.”

Her lawyer said divorce proceedings are now under way.

Hicks had worked in auto parts sales for two decades but was studying full time in a paralegal technology program at Durham Technical Community College. College spokeswoman Carver Weaver described Hicks as a “diligent student” who “helped other students frequently.” Hicks was scheduled to graduate this spring.

Four years ago, while working at a local Harris Teeter grocery store, Hicks was presented with a leadership award for being “an asset to our produce and deli/bakery departments.” A certificate from the store that he posted on his Facebook page listed his hobbies: hiking, nature, history, motorcycling and target shooting. It also noted that “his primary interest is in dogs” and that he volunteered at several animal shelters.

But such descriptions stand in stark contrast to the vitriol Hicks espoused online.

It is unclear when Hicks formed his atheist beliefs. He told his Facebook friends that it came from studying the Christian Bible and other religious texts, and he quoted everyone from Adolf Hitler and John F. Kennedy to pop icon Elton John to make his point.

He railed repeatedly against the “fundies” — fundamentalists — and stressed the need to protect the separation of church and state.

“I don’t want to dispute ones beliefs, unless they try and push such beliefs onto me or another,” he wrote.

He made few overt references specifically to Islam.

In the past couple of years, much of Hicks’ disgust was directed at his neighbors in Finley Forest.

Several people have said Hicks would show up at their door, gun on hip, to complain that their music was too loud or that they or a visitor had parked in someone else’s spot. He complained so often that the towing company servicing the development banned him from calling.

That didn’t stop the confrontations.

According to neighbor Shadi Wehbe, one of the women from the Barakat household came to his door about two weeks ago and asked if he could move his car.

“She said the reason was because someone had left a very nasty note on hers, telling her that she needed to move hers,” he said. “It seemed like it kind of rattled her.”

One of the victim’s fathers, Namee Barakat, told the AP that Hicks also had visited his son’s condo previously, flashing his gun as he demanded they stop using visitors’ parking spots.

On Monday, Hicks posted a precious video link with his Facebook friends. The clip showed a dachshund puppy, repeatedly dinging a small silver bell with its paw to receive a treat.

“A different take on Pavlov!” he wrote, referring to the famous psychological experiment. “The cutest thing you have seen all day!!”

It was his last post. The following day, according to police, Hicks walked around to the backside of his condo building, entered his neighbors’ home and, their friends and family believe, made martyrs of the three young Muslims.

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Associated Press reporters Jonathan Drew and Emery Dalesio contributed to this report.

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