A North Carolina man espousing anti-religious views has been charged with the murders of three Muslim students, including a husband and wife, who were shot dead in the university town of Chapel Hill, police said Wednesday.
The shooter, identified as Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was being held in Durham County Jail on three counts of first-degree murder, Chapel Hill police said.
The victims were identified as Chapel Hill residents Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.
Hicks turned himself in after the shooting Tuesday in Chapel Hill, just outside the campus of the University of North Carolina.
"Mr Hicks has been charged with three counts of 1st degree murder," the police said in a statement.
A Facebook page believed to belong to Hicks showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including one calling himself an "anti-theist" saying he has a "conscientious objection to religion" and others memes denouncing Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.
His page also showed a photo of a loaded revolver, alongside a video of a puppy and a promotional clip for Air New Zealand.
One post read: "I'm not an atheist because I'm ignorant of the reality of religious scripture. I'm an atheist because religious scripture is ignorant of reality."
"Given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I’d say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it," he posted under the religious beliefs tab.
Photos of the three victims circulated on social media, including recent wedding pictures of Barakat and Abu-Salha.
Reports said Barakat was a second-year student in dentistry there while his wife was planning to begin her dental studies in the fall.
Razan Abu-Salha was a student at North Carolina State University, according to the UNC university newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel.
A Facebook community --– Our Three Winners –- has been set up for posts about the three students.
"Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord," the site's creators state. "They have set an example in life and in death."
The site features a photo of the three smiling at what appears to be graduation ceremony. The women wear Muslim head scarfs, one of them also in a blue graduation cap.
Barakat's brother Farris mourned the deaths, writing "it doesn't make sense" on his own Facebook page.
"Please pray for them, their friends, and the family. I haven't even begun to fully comprehend what has happened. But I know for sure those three together have done so much we are all proud of," Farris Barakat wrote.
Police in Chapel Hill have not disclosed a possible motive for the attack. They were not immediately available for comment.
The police website released a statement confirming the three deaths and saying the department is "questioning a person of interest in the crime and has reason to believe that there is no ongoing threat to the public."