Man in southwestern Ontario charged after family attacked with bat amid shouts of 'ISIS'

A 36-year-old man has been charged with aggravated assault and three counts of assault with a weapon after a family in St. Thomas, Ont., was attacked in a parking lot by someone wielding a bat and yelling about ISIS and terrorists.

Mark Phillips, 36, denied bail as police investigate the attack as 'racially motivated'

Mari Zambrano and Sergio Estepa in their home in St. Thomas, Ont., a day after they were attacked by a man wielding a baseball bat, yelling about ISIS and terrorists. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

They came to Canada to get away from war in Colombia, and are teaching their teenage son to stand up for others when he sees injustice. 

But Sergio Estepa is still nursing a cracked rib and large bruise after a baseball bat attack Thursday afternoon in a busy parking lot in St. Thomas, Ont. 

He and his family got little help from bystanders as a man charged at him, unprovoked, yelling about terrorists and ISIS. 

A video of the attack was widely shared on social media on Friday. 

Mark Phillips, 36, was charged with aggravated assault and three counts of assault with a weapon. He was denied bail and will remain in jail until Monday.

A screen grab from an Instagram video posted by a woman who says her family was attacked by a bat-wielding man in a St. Thomas, Ont., parking lot. (Instagram.com/mariuxstepa)

'Out of the blue'

Estepa was in the strip mall parking lot with his common-law partner Mari Zambrano, their son, and a friend, when the man started speaking to them. Each thought someone else in the group knew the man until it became clear he was hostile. 

"He started saying we don't belong here, that we are speaking French. But we were not speaking French, we were speaking Spanish. We don't know him," said Estepa in the apartment he shares with Zambrano and their 13-year-old son. 

"Out of the blue this guy starts yelling at us. He called me a terrorist, that I'm ISIS, I don't know, maybe because of my beard," Estepa said. "At some point he started to charge my son, and I went in front." 

"Only one person helped us. It happened at 4:30, in a mall with a movie theatre and many stores. It's quite an active mall. We were surprised that they pretended that nothing happened," Estepa said. 

That person happened to be a former vice principal at their son's elementary school. She approached the family and told them she'd give a statement to police. 

"She is a person with courage," Estepa said. 

Estepa suffered a cracked rib and bruising after stepping between the assailant and his 13-year-old son. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Police in the southwestern Ontario city, roughly 20 kilometres south of London, said they are investigating Thursday's incident as something that was "racially motivated."

"It's disturbing. This was an isolated and quite disturbing incident. Hopefully it remains isolated," said Sgt. Brian Carnegie. 

"It's quite disturbing for any community, never mind the community of St. Thomas. Not only being a police officer in this community but a member of this community, I'm shocked and outraged that something like this would happen." 

Shaking and frightened

Zambrano and Estepa had gone to the Elgin Mall with a friend to meet their son after school. 

When the man started yelling at them, Estepa started filming while Zambrano tried to call 911, though she was shaking and frightened. 

The video shows a man wearing jeans and a black jacket, and holding a bright green baseball bat. He approaches the family, saying "Give me that phone… You're under arrest… You're a terrorist." 

Note: this video contains strong language that some people may find offensive.

The bat-wielding man gets closer, asking Estepa to see what is in his pocket. Estepa says, "Stay away from me." 

The man with the bat then starts yelling, "Terrorist. Terrorist. We have a French terrorist here," and "ISIS! ISIS! We have ISIS right here," he says, referring to the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

He then swings the bat, a woman is heard screaming and the camera falls. 

"Stay away from me," the man with the camera says. 

Estepa said the man was trying to attack their son, who is tall for his age. 

'We lost our country'

Estepa and Zambrano came to Canada separately, almost 20 years ago, and met while learning English as a second language at an adult language school in London, Ont. 

"The reason why we came to Canada is because we lost our country Colombia because of indifference. The war was in the countryside, we live in the city, we don't care who is killed there. That is the big enemy we have: indifference," Estepa said. 

Just days ago they were talking to their son about stepping in when he sees others being picked on. 

"It's not this city, it's not this country. It's a person with mental [issues]," Estepa said of the attack. "But try not to be indifferent. Try to help people." 

Phillips, last recorded as having an address in Toronto, was arrested in London, Ont., several hours after the bat incident.

He will be back in the Elgin County Courthouse on Monday. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.