The case of a group of teen girls charged in the “swarming” death of a homeless man is exceedingly rare, police and an expert said Wednesday as investigators worked to piece together how an alleged fight over a liquor bottle escalated to fatal violence.
Toronto police have said eight teenage girls have been charged with second-degree murder after a 59-year-old man was stabbed Saturday night. Three of the girls were 13, three were 14 and two were 16.
“It’s not that females have never been involved in homicides before, but to this degree, with this age group, I’ve never personally seen this before,” Det. Sgt. Terry Browne told The Canadian Press in an interview.
Browne said the girls met on social media and congregated Saturday night in the downtown core, where they were first involved in another criminal but “non-assaultive” incident.
The girls then allegedly swarmed and stabbed the homeless man, sending him to hospital early Sunday morning where he was later pronounced dead, police said.
“It’s our belief that their purpose was to remove property from him and a companion that he was with. It’s our belief it was a liquor bottle,” said Browne. “During that altercation, they used a sort of group gathering to attack the victim.”
All the teens are facing equal charges, Browne said.
“What we are alleging is that all eight individuals participated in the attack on this victim, and because of that participation, he is now deceased,” he said.
Browne said the girls live in homes across the Greater Toronto Area, leading police to infer that social media played a role in connecting them. Whether or not the girls exhibited patterns of behaviour like bullying or victimization leading up to the man’s death, also remains a primary focus of the investigation, he said.
Browne has said three of the girls had previous interactions with police, while the other five did not. Their identities cannot be released under the provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
A parent of each of the girls was notified about the charges laid and what allegedly happened.
“Everyone collectively was in shock and awe about what had happened, obviously despondent,” said Browne.
Tracy Vaillancourt, a University of Ottawa professor and Canada Research Chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention, said it’s “atypical” to see adolescent girls engage in aggression that could lead to a murder charge.
She said the case highlights how groups can have a “deindividuation effect,” where people’s individual actions and responsibility are trumped and obfuscated by a group’s actions, which can lead to impulsivity and violence.
“What that means is the way you behave in a group that’s gone awry, like here, is not the way you would typically behave if you were alone,” said Vaillancourt. “In a sense it blunts you, desensitizes you to the distress and the plight of the person that you’re causing harm to.”
The victim in this case may also have been easier to allegedly target because he belonged to a vulnerable group, Vaillancourt said.
“Moral disengagement is a cognitive mechanism that people use to make their egregious acts more palatable,” she said. “One of them is dehumanization, and so they probably saw this individual as being less.”
The Toronto Youth Cabinet, the city’s official youth advisory body, said it was “disheartened” to hear about the attack.
“We must also recognize that violence against homeless and precariously housed individuals are on the rise and those who are the most vulnerable in our communities will be recipients of these violent acts,” a statement from cabinet executive director Stephen Mensah read.
“As a society we must not be comfortable and complacent with the rise in violence nor must we be for the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions our young people find themselves in.”
The group also called for more investments into youth services, employment and community support from all levels of government.
Browne recalled a “swarming” phenomenon in the 1990s and early 2000s where mostly adolescent men in groups would prey on and attack individual victims and steal from or intimidate them.
British Columbia teenager Reena Virk was 14 years old in 1997 when a group of teenagers swarmed and beat her, and her trial heard that a 15-year-old girl continued the beating and drowned her in a waterway.
In the Toronto case, Browne said police were asking anyone who may have come into contact with the teen girls on Saturday night to come forward. Police were also still trying to notify the family of the man who died.