Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET
Craig Stephen Hicks has pleaded guilty to killing three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2015, a shocking crime that was variously described as a hate crime, a dispute over parking or some combination of the two.
Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry read out three counts of first-degree murder against Hicks, 50, in court on Wednesday. Hicks responded “guilty” to each crime, as member station WUNC’s Jason deBruyn reports.
The murders sparked widespread calls for tolerance and engagement with Muslim communities, with vigils and rallies in the victims’ memories held as far away as Gaza City.
The 2015 shootings took place as the three young people were sitting down to dinner. Deah Barakat, 23, was a second-year student in the University of North Carolina’s dentistry school. His 21-year-old wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, was planning to attend that graduate school. Her 19-year-old sister, Razan Abu-Salha, was a student at N.C. State University.
They were interrupted by Hicks, ringing the doorbell.
In a surprising revelation, prosecutors played a previously unreleased video recording that captured part of the shootings and was taken from a cellphone belonging to Barakat.
“In the 36-second video, Hicks can be seen first threatening Deah, then almost immediately start shooting,” deBruyn says. “The cellphone falls with the camera facing the ceiling.”
As the video continues, deBruyn reports, “there are screams from two women, both of which can be heard pleading for their lives screaming, ‘Please! Please!’ ”
Before the video was played, the judge agreed to a request from the district attorney’s office that the cellphone video “not be recorded by media in the courtroom.”
Hicks was charged with first-degree murder; police said his actions may have been fueled in part by a parking dispute between neighbors. But in court, prosecutors made it clear that Hicks harbored animosity for the young trio from the start. He and his victims lived at the Finley Forest Condominiums.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson sentenced Hicks to three consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
In court, Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn described Hicks as a frustrated man who grew increasingly irate in confrontations with his neighbors — particularly as the complex became popular with college students.
Montgomery-Blinn also recounted that in late 2014, when Yusor Abu-Salha was moving into the apartment, Hicks confronted her mother and said, “I don’t like the look of you people. Get out of here.” Both of the women were wearing hijab headscarves.
Montgomery-Blinn said Hicks was obsessed with the Michael Douglas film Falling Down, was very interested in guns, and “hated all forms of religion,” according to Raleigh’s The News and Observer.
“According to prosecutors, during his time at the apartment complex, Hicks would be rude to white neighbors,” deBruyn reports from the courtroom, “but to nonwhite neighbors, he would threaten violence and brandish a gun to intimidate.”
The victims’ friends and family disagreed with characterizations of the crime as a dispute. It was clear, they said, that Hicks felt special hostility to his Muslim neighbors.
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the two slain women’s father, said Hicks had previously threatened the family and that he followed that up with methodical and very intentional violence.
“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Abu-Salha told The Charlotte Observer in 2015. “This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”