Three students were fatally shot near the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus on Tuesday and police are investigating whether the man charged with the killings was motivated by hate. All three victims were Muslim.

The victims were named as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Barakat and Mohammad were newlyweds, having married in December.

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder, according to police. 

Police responded to a call reporting gunshots at a condominium complex around 5:11 p.m. local time and found the three victims who were all pronounced dead at the scene. The apartments are mostly occupied by families and graduate students. Sources told a local television station the victims were all shot in the head. 

Police said in a statement Wednesday morning that a preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking. Hicks is co-operating with investigators, it noted. Local media reported  that Hicks was arraigned on the charges in court Wednesday morning and his next appearance is scheduled for March 4. 

Three Killed North Carolina

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was arrested on three counts of murder early Wednesday. Police say he is co-operating with the investigation. (Associated Press)

A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said his group is calling on law enforcement to quickly address whether the victims' faith had something to do with the crimes committed.

"We are hearing unsubstantiated rumours that there had been previous interactions, possibly harassment of the victims by the alleged perpetrator," Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the group, said in an interview Wednesday morning.

Police will 'exhaust every lead'

"Given the brutality of the crime, the fact that two of the victims wore Islamic attire, and given the tremendous rise in the level of anti-Muslim hate rhetoric in American society, we hope that the law enforcement authorities quickly address whether there was a bias motive in this case," said Hooper.

Chapel Hill police said they are looking into that possibility.

"Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act. We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case," the statement said.   

The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter was trending nationally on Twitter early on Wednesday, with many postings discussing the shooting and noting a lack of national media coverage.

A Facebook page called "Our three winners" was set up to pay tribute to the victims. It contains photos from the young couple's wedding and talks about the charity work they did.

Barakat was a second-year student at the university's dentistry school. Mohammad was planning on starting there in the fall, while her sister was a student at North Carolina State University. 

The schools have offered their condolences to the families and are trying to help students cope by making counselling available. 

murders-students

Yosur Mohammad and Deah Shaddy Barakat, in a photo posted on a Facebook tribute page, were married in December. (Facebook)

‚Äč

"We are heartbroken and grief-stricken by last night's devastating news, the incredible loss to our school and to the entire Carolina Community," Jane Weintraub, dean of the dentistry school, said in a statement. "This is a terrible shock, and all of us at the school are grieving together." She said Barakat was known for his kindness, love of basketball and his sincerity and that he was well-respected and loved.

Weintraub added the school was looking forward to getting to know Mohammad, who had been accepted into the class of 2019.

Victims involved in charity dental work

Barakat was active with a charity called Refugee Smiles and was planning on going to Turkey this summer to provide dental care to Syrian refugees. In a YouTube video he urges viewers to donate to YouCaring.com/SyrianDentalRelief.

In the wake of his death, donations poured in Wednesday morning, according to the website. Around 9 a.m. ET, it showed that about $26,000 had been raised, surpassing the $20,000 goal and by Wednesday afternoon more than $95,000 had been donated. His wife was also active with a charity called North Carolina Missions of Mercy, which provides free dental care. The younger sister also volunteered and helped feed the homeless in Raleigh.

"These were the best of the best. These were the kind of children every parent dreams for," a friend, Shafi Khan, told CNN.

The Facebook tribute page, which appears to have been set up by a family member, said a vigil will be held Wednesday evening to honour the three students.

"My family was murdered execution style in their home. It was a hate-filled crime. Don't fight fire with fire," a post on the page reads. It also says that Barakat's last text message to his mother told her he loved her.

The father of the two sisters told the Raleigh News & Observer newspaper that the accused gunman had an underlying animosity toward his daughter and her husband because of their religion.

"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," Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha is quoted as saying. "They were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far."

He told the newspaper his daughter talked about having a "hateful neighbour."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman said he was fielding calls from reporters Wednesday morning but Hooper didn't express much surprise that the story so far hadn't generated heavy media coverage on major U.S.  television networks.

"Unfortunately, that's all too common an occurrence that when a Muslim is the perpetrator of some act of violence it makes international headlines, but when the Muslim is the victim of violence it's regarded as a brief news item that quickly passes," said Hooper.