A 35-year-old white supremacist with a criminal record has been arrested in connection with the stabbing deaths Friday of two men on a light-rail train in Portland, Ore., who intervened when he began to hurl anti-Muslim epithets at two women, one who was wearing a head scarf, police said.
Jeremy Joseph Christian of North Portland was jailed early Saturday on charges of aggravated murder, attempted murder, intimidation in the second degree and felony possession of a restricted weapon. He is being held without bail, and could face additional charges, police said.
The incident occurred on the Metropolitan Area Express light-rail line — known as MAX —during rush hour Friday. The two men who were killed appear to have stepped in to protect the women from racial slurs. One of the men was identified in a Facebook post by his mother as Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, a recent graduate of Reed College.
"Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, My dear baby boy passed on yesterday while protecting two young Muslim girls from a racist man on the train in Portland," the post said. "He was a hero and will remain a hero on the other side of the veil. Shining bright star I love you forever."
Police did not name the victims, including another man who was injured.
Larry Blackwood, who was riding in an adjacent car as the train filled withcommuters pulled in tothe Hollywood light-rail station, described hearing a woman's "gut-wrenching" scream: "He's stabbing people, he's stabbing people!"
Blackwood jumped off the train, he said, and faced a horrific scene.
"As I ran off the MAX, I seen two people bleeding out of their necks," said Blackwood, 27, who was on his way home from work as a lunchtime cook at Portland City Grill. "Literally from the front to the back [of the car], there was blood everywhere. There was a man screaming, 'Please, help my son, he needs a doctor!'"
Portland police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said that, according to witnesses, Christian used "hate speech or biased speech, about a variety of ethnicities or religions."
"Witnesses describe his verbal behavior as wide-ranging in the ethnicities he was yelling about," Simpson said. "I wouldn't say he was just focused on one particular religion or ethnicity; I would say he was ranting about many things."
A Facebook profile that appears to belong to Christian contains neo-Nazi statements such as, "Yep. Im a nazi [sic]," "Hail Vinland" and "I will defend the Nazis." The page is filled with vitriol including, "I want a job in Norway cutting off the heads of people that Circumcize [sic] Babies") and shows Christian to have been a participant in right-wing rallies this year in Portland.
Imam Mikal Shabazz, director of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization, said late Friday that Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman's office made it clear to him they view the incident as a hate crime.
"More than the fact that this individual was alleged to have made Islamophobic statements, when the chief's office called, they did confirm that they've come to the conclusion that this is a hate-related crime, and they held off doing so until they had enough reason to say, 'Yes, this is what it was,'" Shabazz said.
The attack occurred on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"Certainly it's not lost on us that this horrific act occurred on the beginning of Ramadan," Simpson said. "While we don't yet know the motivations behind the attack, what we do know is there was some hate speech used leading up to the attack, and that's certainly very concerning."
Police are asking the public for help and hoping to obtain statements from other witnesses — starting with the two young Muslim women, one of whom reportedly was wearing a hijab.
There have been recent hate crimes in metro Portland, which has a larger white population than many large U.S. cities. Last year, 19-year-old Larnell Bruce, who was black, was runover and killed by an admitted white supremacist in a parking lot in Gresham, a suburb.
But there's been nothing targeting Muslims that rises to this level, police say.
"If this turns out to be classified that way, certainly [there's been] nothing of this caliber," Simpson said.
As word of the incident spread Friday night, emotions ran high in Portland's Muslim community.
"It's just starting to reverberate out through the community what actually happened," Shabazz said.
Musse Olol, chairman of the Somali American Council of Oregon, got the news after leaving a meeting with police and Muslim leaders to talk about security during Ramadan. Normally, he said, he would spend the first hours of the holy month worshiping.
Instead, Friday night he was working the phones until the wee hours.
"It's the timing, that is what makes it very difficult," Olol said. "It's close to home. It's too close for comfort. It's worrisome."
Despite the timing and a recent series of stabbings on the city's light-rail system, the incident appears to be isolated, Simpson said.
In the face of the tragedy, Muslim leaders focused on the actions of the passengers who intervened.
Olol wept as he spoke of the two men who died.
"Most of the imams I talked to wanted to know who were these good Samaritans," he said. "These two guys are the heroes. The story should be about them, not the terrorist and the girls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Shabazz said, "What they did reminds us of the courage and the decency and the humanity that will rise above the hatred, the bigotry and all the other negative things that's going across the board."
Shabazz and Olol said it was hard to gauge how the attack might affect Portland Muslims' feelings of safety.
"Will we be afraid to go to prayer? No," Shabazz said. "Will we be more vigilant? Yes."
Blackwood, who posted a Facebook Live video of the incident, is credited as being among three passengers who pursued the assailant and alerted police.
"Those people providing the 911 updates led officers to finding" the suspect, Simpson said.
Blackwood said he didn't think about it; he simply jumped into action.
"I heard kids screaming. I heard a woman scream clear as day, 'He's stabbing people,' and that's when I jumped up and said, I'm gonna stop him," Blackwood said.
Passengers described a suspect with no shirt, long hair and shorts. Blackwood spotted the man fleeing on a walkway above the platform, he said.
He began following, and at one point, Blackwood said, the man turned and pulled his knife, but didn't attack. The three men kept an eye on the suspect as"he stopped in, like, a bus terminal area, and was washing blood off himself and putting a shirt on," Blackwood said.
Then police showed up, and an officer trained an AR-15 rifle on the suspect. Blackwood said the suspect tried to commit "suicide by cop," but police were able to apprehend him without incident.
"He didn't put down his knife, and he was saying, 'Do it, just shoot me,'" Blackwood said. He described the suspect as "incredibly agitated" and possibly high on methamphetamine.
Blackwood's voice broke as he spoke of the sacrifice of the two men who died.
"I definitely feel the two gentlemen who stepped up, those two are definitely heroes, man. They stepped up out of the sheer kindness of their hearts," he said.
A makeshift memorial was placed for the victims at the Hollywood station, and a vigil was planned Saturday night.
"We'd like to pass our condolences to the families of these two individuals who lost their lives," Olol said.
Thacher Schmid is a special correspondent.
2:45 p.m.: This article updates throughout with staff reporting that includes eyewitness accounts.