PORTLAND, OR (AP) — The mayor of Portland, Oregon, hailed as “heroes” two men who were stabbed to death trying to protect two women police say were the target of an anti-Muslim rant by a man on a light-rail train — a crime that shocked this city that prides itself on its tolerance.
Police said they’ll examine what appears to be the extremist ideology of Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, who is accused of killing the men Friday. Christian’s social media postings indicate an affinity for Nazis and political violence.
The attack happened on the first day of Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for Muslims, and it sent shockwaves through Portland. A memorial where the stabbing occurred grew steadily Saturday and there were night time vigils.
“That people feel emboldened to come out and show their racism and bigotry in that way is horrifying to me. It’s a gut check for everywhere — and absolutely for Portland,” said Christopher Douglas, who stopped at the memorial. “Portland … floats in a little bit of a bubble of its own liberal comfort and I think the reality is sinking in.”
Christian was being held in the Multnomah County Jail on suspicion of aggravated murder, attempted murder, intimidation and being a felon in possession of a weapon. He was arrested a short time after the attack.
He will make a first court appearance Tuesday, and it wasn’t clear if he had an attorney. A phone at his home in Portland rang unanswered Saturday, and no one came to the door at his parents’ home.
Police identified the victims as Ricky John Best, 53, of Happy Valley, Oregon, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, of Portland. Police say Best died at the scene and that Meche died at a hospital.
Meche’s mother, Asha Deliverance of Ashland, Oregon, confirmed on Facebook that her son had been killed. She did not immediately return a call to her business phone listing or a message sent through social media.
“He was a hero and will remain a hero on the other side of the veil. Shining bright star I love you forever,” she wrote.
Meche graduated last year from Reed College in Portland with a bachelor’s degree in economics, the college said on its website. Mayor Ted Wheeler said at a news conference that Best was an Army veteran and a city employee.
“These two men died heroes as a result of a horrific act of racist violence.”
Police say Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, of Portland was also stabbed in the attack and is in serious condition at a Portland hospital. Police say his injuries are not believed to be life-threatening.
Police said one of the two young women on the train was wearing a hijab. The assailant was ranting on many topics, using “hate speech or biased language,” police Sgt. Pete Simpson said.
Dyjuana Hudson, a mother of one of the girls, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the man began a racial tirade as soon as he spotted the girls. Her daughter is African-American and was with a friend who was wearing a hijab, she said.
“He was saying that Muslims should die,” Hudson said.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney for Oregon are working with Portland police. The FBI says it’s too early to say whether the slayings qualify as a federal hate crime however Christian faces intimidation charges, the state equivalent of a hate crime.
Wheeler decried the charged national political environment surrounding immigration.
“Violent words can lead to violent acts,” Wheeler said. “All elected leaders in America…must work deliberately to change our political dialogue.”
The Portland Mercury, one of the city’s alternative weeklies, posted an article on its website saying Christian showed up at a free speech march in late April with a baseball bat to confront protesters and the bat was confiscated by police.
The article included video clips of a man wearing a metal chain around his neck and draped in an American flag shouting “I’m a nihilist! This is my safe place!” as protesters crowd around him. The Oregonian/OregonLive also had video from the April 29 march showing Christian.
Simpson confirmed the man in the videos was Christian and said investigators were aware of them.
On what appears to be Christian’s Facebook page he showed sympathy for Nazis and wrote last month “May all the Gods Bless Timothy McVeigh, a TRUE PATRIOT!!!,” a reference to the man who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Neighbors who live next to Christian’s parents’ house — which was also his last listed address in court records — said the family was quiet.
One neighbor, Kenny Jenkins, said he occasionally saw Christian riding his bike around the neighborhood.
In 2002, Christian was arrested and charged with first-degree robbery and second-degree kidnaping after he rode to a convenience store on his bike and held up employees there with a gun, according to court records and his court-appointed defense attorney at the time, Matthew Kaplan.
Kaplan said he remembers the case vividly because Christian was so young, so earnest and had never been in trouble before. At the time, the attorney suspected the onset of mental health problems.
Muhammad A. Najieb, an imam at a local Muslim Community Center, said Saturday the two young women “could have been the victims, but three heroes jumped in and supported them. He said a fundraising page launched by his group for the families of the dead bystanders, the surviving victim and the two young women had raised $50,000 in just two hours.
“I am very thankful as a Muslim, I am very thankful as a Portlander … that we stand together here as one,” he said.