(Reuters) - A man fatally stabbed two passengers aboard a Portland, Oregon, commuter train after they tried to stop him from harassing two young women who appeared to be Muslim, police said on Saturday.
Police identified the assailant, who was arrested soon after the Friday afternoon attack, as Jeremy Joseph Christian of Portland, a 35-year-old convicted felon.
A senior researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a blog post, said Christian’s Facebook page showed he held “some racist and other extremist beliefs.”
The attack unfolded hours before the start of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, when most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims observe a daily religious fast.
“It’s too early to say whether last night’s violence was an act of domestic terrorism or a federal hate crime,” Loren Cannon, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Oregon told a news conference on Saturday, adding the bureau had joined the investigation.
Christian started shouting ethnic and religious slurs, apparently at the two young women, one of whom wore a Muslim head-covering, the Portland Police Department said in a statement.
Three men who intervened were stabbed. Ricky John Best, 53, of Happy Valley, Oregon died at the scene, while Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, of Southeast Portland died at a hospital, police said. A third victim, Micah David-Cole Fletcher of 21, Southeast Portland, remained in a local hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries, police said.
Christian was booked on two counts of aggravated murder and charges of attempted murder, intimidation and being a felon in possession of a restricted weapon, and was ordered held without bail. His arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday.
The women, who had left the train before officers arrived, were later in contact with authorities, according to police, who have not released their identities.
Dyjuana Hudson, the mother of one of them, told The Oregonian newspaper her 16-year-old daughter, who is black, boarded the train with a Muslim friend, also a teenager, who was wearing a hijab.
The attacker approached the girls while screaming at them, Hudson told the newspaper, relaying an account her daughter had given her. “He was saying that Muslims should die,” Hudson said.
On Friday, police said detectives wanted to speak to the two women. A detective later took a statement from her family, Hudson told the paper. She could not be reached for comment.
Police declined to release details of Christian’s criminal history, but the newspaper reported he had been convicted of robbery, kidnapping and weapon charges, citing court records. It was not immediately clear if he had obtained an attorney.
The suspect had no known affiliation with a criminal gang member nor any mental health history, police said.
In a statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations blamed an increase in anti-Muslim incidents in part on President Donald Trump’s focus on militant Islamist groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The administration has said that while it strongly opposes Islamist militants, it has no quarrel with Islam.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Christian mentions “Jihadi Muslims” among people he disliked. The image on the page matches a photo of Christian released by police.
“There is too much hatred in the world right now and far too much violence. Our current political climate allows far too much room for those who spread bigotry,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told a news conference.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Tom Brown and James Dalgleish