(CNN) — He wishes he could cry uncontrollably, like his grief-stricken wife. But he’s still in shock.
Mohammad Abu-Salha knows at some moment something will unpin his anguish. “It will come, when I’m by myself. It will come at night. It will come when I see their faces.”
Much of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is grieving at vigils and prayer services after three students were found shot to death. But for Mohammad Abu-Salha, that has to wait. He needs to share with the world how wonderful the three were, how they left a light in their lives.
Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, and Yusor Mohammad, 21, were his daughters. Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was his son-in-law.
Mohammad Abu-Salha, other family members and many Muslims believe their killing was a hate crime. Authorities aren’t ruling that out, but think an irrational dispute over a parking space may have had something to do with it.
Tuesday’s slayings had the hallmark of a summary execution — shots fired to their heads. A neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, turned himself in to police the same night and has been charged with murder.
He has no prior criminal record and is cooperating with the investigation, police said.
911: Gunfire, screams
In the condominium complex where newlyweds lived, people heard gunfire and dialed 911. One caller heard five to 10 bangs and screaming, but she didn’t know from which apartment.
Another caller thought she walked right past it, when the shooting started.
“I heard about eight shots go off in the apartment,” she said. “More than one girl screaming. And then there was nothing, and then I heard about three more shots go off. … I hid behind a car. … I never heard gunshots before like that.”
News of a killing near the University of North Carolina reached Abu-Salha.
Then his son-in-law’s mother called.
“She was frantic over the phone, and she was told by one of his colleagues that Deah was involved in that shooting and that there were three people killed,” Abu-Salha said.
He and his wife tried their daughters’ cell phones. No answer. They got in the car and headed for the condo.
They just knew
“So, we just drove there knowing what we are about to face. I almost crashed my car on the way there,” he said. “And then we found the police there.”
They waited for four hours in front of the cordoned-off scene for word from police. But it came from the media and friends.
“We pretty much knew nobody survived,” Abu-Salha said.
Hicks had found a car belonging to one of the victims in what he claimed was his parking space, according to the law enforcement official briefed on the investigation.
Then Hicks went to the victims’ condo and shot all three people, the official said.
Though Abu-Salha is in shock, he’s not surprised. His daughter Yusor Mohammad had told him about the neighbor a few times before. He would appear mad about this or that, and at least twice, he had a gun in his belt, she had said.
Mohammad was afraid of him.
“I can estimate a week ago, knocking at the door, yelling. I think that time, she was talking about him unhappy with some noise, because they had friends visiting,” Abu-Salha recalled.
Such gatherings were tame, he said. The couple wasn’t into wild parties.
His story sounded similar to one Latoya Peterson told, after she visited the couple in the fall for dinner and a board game.
They were playing Risk, and Peterson was losing badly. “I mean, I know I was mad because they were beating me at the game, but that was it,” she told a friend who blogged about it.
After she left, Mohammad called her to ask if the neighbor had hassled her, Peterson said. Mohammad told her that the neighbor had appeared at their door, angry about noise and the extra cars parked in the neighborhood.
He was holding a rifle. “He didn’t point it at anyone, but he still had it,” Peterson said Mohammad told her.
Abu-Salha says he thinks his loved ones’ killing was a hate crime. When Barakat lived in the condo by himself, there were no problems with the neighbor. They inflamed after his daughter, who wears a hijab, moved in with her husband, he said.
It was a visible sign that they were Muslims.
“Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look,” Abu-Salha said his daughter told him.
He believes that people prejudge Muslims in their communities because of the constant news they hear about extremist terrorists and the association with Islam.
Authorities have not ruled out in their investigation that it may be a hate crime, but they have been searching the suspect’s computer and have not found any sign of it yet.
On what is believed to be his Facebook page, Hicks is quite vocal about his atheism. And those who say the shooting is a hate crime are passing around a post attributed to him:
“When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.” CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the post.
It is not directed against a particular religion.
Hicks’ wife, Karen Hicks, who has been in the process of divorcing him, said the shooting was not a hate crime. “I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or victims’ faith.”
Her husband had been at odds with various neighbors of various backgrounds over parking, she said.
And Rob Maitland, her attorney, said the shooting “highlights the importance of access to mental health care services.”
Senseless either way
Whether it was a hate crime or wild rage over a parking space, the killing was utterly senseless to grieving students at the University of North Carolina on Wednesday.
“There is no mystic or theologian or philosopher out there who can make this ugly mess into something comprehensible,” a student mourned at a podium microphone to thousands of students who gathered outside at the university after sundown Wednesday.
Some lit candles. Mostly they stood silent with solemn faces. Another speaker stood at the podium.
“Let’s pray in every language … for these beautiful souls,” said another speaker.
Razan Abu-Salha was studying architecture. Barakat and Mohammad were on their way to becoming dentists and loved charity work. Barakat was raising money for a dentistry aid trip to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The couple also fed the homeless and hungry in downtown Raleigh “many times a year,” Mohammad Abu-Salha said. “They cooked loads of food.”
“They came heartbroken to tell me how many grown men they’ve seen, standing in line, waiting for a bite,” he said.
On Thursday, mourning will continue with a Janazah — or funeral — prayer at in the afternoon at Raleigh’s Islamic Center, followed by an evening candlelight vigil at North Carolina State University.
“These three children were loved by thousands and thousands of people here,” Abu-Salha said. “They’re raised here, they belong here, they died here, and they will be buried here, and we have a story to tell all our lives.”