BOISE, Idaho — Several families who had fled danger and violence overseas were enjoying a 3-year-old’s birthday party in Boise, Idaho, when the unthinkable happened: A man ran up and began chasing and stabbing the children, turning his knife on the adults who tried to intervene.
The attack came Saturday night at a low-income apartment complex that is also home to refugee families from around the world. Nine people were injured, including the birthday girl and five other children ranging in age from 4 to 12.
The most gravely injured were clinging to life Sunday evening, Boise Police Chief William Bones said.
“The victims are some of the newest members of our community,” Bones said Sunday. “This was an attack against those who are most vulnerable.”
The chaos began shortly before 8:46 p.m. Saturday, when police received a report of a man with a knife. They arrived less than four minutes later to find victims lying in the street, in the parking lot and inside the complex. Thirty-year-old Timmy Kinner was found and arrested a short distance away; investigators later found a knife believed to be used in the attack in a nearby canal.
Members of refugee families from Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia were among the injured.
Kinner, who is not a refugee, had been asked to leave the apartment complex Friday after staying there for a short time with a resident, Bones said. Kinner faces several felony charges, including aggravated battery and injury to a child. Bones did not know Sunday if Kinner had an attorney.
“We have no specific evidence at this time to believe it was a hate crime,” Bones told reporters at a press conference Sunday, saying the victims may have simply been targeted because of where they were located on the property. Still, Bones said, the motive remains under investigation.
Esrom Habte, 12, and Fathi Mahamoud, 11, were playing in the grass behind their apartment when the attack began. They ran for safety when they saw the suspect chasing people.
“We saw a killer and didn’t want to get stabbed,” Esrom said. “We saw him saying, like, bad words and stabbing a kid and a grown-up really hard and a lot of times.”
The two ran into an apartment and hid in a closet with Esrom’s two sisters and another child, and stayed inside until police told them it was safe to come out.
“I saw the police cleaning stuff, and then I came outside,” Fathi said. He said the stabbing victims are his friends. The victims include members of three refugee families from Iraq, Ethiopia and Syria.
The attack resulted in the most victims in a single incident in Boise Police Department history, the chief said.
“The crime scene, the faces of the parents struggling, the tears coming down their faces, the faces of the children in their hospital beds will be something that I carry with me for the rest of my life, as will every first responder that night,” he said.
Police believe Kinner had only been in Boise for a short time when he met a resident of the complex, who offered him a temporary place to stay. She asked him to leave on Friday because of his behavior.
“I believe her perception was, ‘Here’s a helping hand I can give in return for a helping hand I have been given,'” Bones said.
The woman was not among the victims, Bones said.
The apartment complex is just off of one of Boise’s busier streets, separated from the traffic by one of the many irrigation canals that run through the city. On Sunday, colorful bouquets had been placed just outside the crime-scene tape.
Residents of the apartments and the rest of the community were “reeling” from the violence, Bones said, and the victims will need long-term community support.
“This isn’t something that gets over in the days or weeks that follow. … The level of the some of the injuries will be life-altering in a very negative way,” Bones said.
Mayor Dave Bieter condemned the stabbings.
“Last night’s horrific attack does not represent Boise,” Bieter wrote. “Please join me in praying for the injured and their families. We must come together to condemn this vile act.”
Megan Schwab, who works with the International Rescue Committee in Boise, said the organization was working to provide temporary housing, counseling and other support to those affected by the attack. A candlelight vigil was planned for Monday evening, and several organizations and individuals were launching fundraising campaigns to help cover the victims’ expenses.
For some of the refugees living at the complex, the attack revived traumatic memories of the war and violence they had fled. The blood from the stabbings reminded Fathi’s mother, Thado Aip, of the terror she left in Somalia, an interpreter said on Sunday.
Fathi stayed close by his mother’s side Sunday, at times sitting on the grass to lean against her legs as he watched the police at the crime scene.