Man arrested in attack on teen in Winnipeg bus shelter tried to run down officers: police

The man accused of randomly attacking a foreign student inside a downtown Winnipeg bus shelter had just been released from a federal prison after serving a sentence for weapons offences.

Joshua Zachary Snakeskin had just been released from a federal prison on weapons charges

Joshua Zachary Snakeskin, 26, has been charged with robbery and assault in connection with the beating of a 17-year-old foreign student in a downtown Winnipeg bus shelter. (Josh Snakeskin/Facebook)

The man arrested in connection with the attack on a foreign student inside a downtown Winnipeg bus shelter had just been released from a federal prison after serving a sentence for weapons offences..

Following the apparently random beating Tuesday of the 17-year-old male student — who had come to Canada from India, and had only been here for about three weeks — police say Joshua Zachary Snakeskin went on a crime spree that included a carjacking and assault on the driver, as well as the theft of a pickup truck.

The 26-year-old was arrested Wednesday night after the truck, which was fuelled up and driven away from a gas station without paying, was spotted on Portage Avenue.

Snakeskin led police on a brief pursuit that included the police helicopter and spike belts on the roadway. Driving on wheel rims after the tires were blown out, Snakeskin became stuck in traffic, police said.

Joshua Snakeskin is seen in a video still from a surveillance camera in downtown Winnipeg. (Winnipeg Police Service)

As officers approached the truck, he turned the vehicle and drove at them, forcing one to jump out of the way. Snakeskin drove off again but was boxed in and forced to stop farther along Portage Avenue.

He has been charged with a slew of offences, including assault, robbery, theft, mischief, dangerous operation of a vehicle and several others.

According to police, Snakeskin went to a parking lot at Seven Oaks Hospital on Wednesday — about 24 hours after the bus shelter assault — where he damaged the window of a vehicle before noticing another being parked.

He forced out the 56-year-old driver, shoved him away and sped off with the vehicle.

The car was later found abandoned in the area of Gimli, about 85 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Police said that's where he then stole the pickup truck, which Janet Thordarson says belongs to her.

Could have been worse

Thordarson ran into a pet store just outside Gimli around 1:45 p.m. when the theft happened. She hadn't locked the truck and had left the keys inside — a common practice in the area, she said — and when she came back out of the store some two minutes later, her truck was gone.

"He hijacked the other car and beat up the guy to get the keys. He would've done the same thing to me," she said.

"If you think about how much worse it could've been — I was in the store, my kids were at my mom's.

"He didn't make it further into town. He could've badly hurt somebody else. He could've pulled into the gas station and hurt somebody and take their car …. A truck is replaceable, so I'm just glad that nobody got hurt."

A man wanted in connection with a brutal assault in a bus shelter was found driving a stolen truck, which police brought to a stop Wednesday evening near Portage Avenue and Albany Street. (Submitted by Danton Unger)

Snakeskin had been serving federal prison time in Stony Mountain Institution, just north of Winnipeg, and was released from custody on Jan. 19.

His previous convictions include weapons offences and theft.

Police said he also has a history of crimes in Alberta, but they didn't know where he was from.

A Canada-wide arrest warrant was issued Monday when he violated his probation. It was the following day, around 10:30 a.m., that he viciously beat the student in a Portage Avenue bus shelter, police say.

The start of the attack is seen in a brief clip from surveillance video, released by police.

In the video, seconds after other people in the shelter and those standing nearby outside walk away, the attacker lunges at the teen and starts to punch him.

Surveillance video of bus shelter beating

5 years ago
Duration 1:16
Winnipeg police Const. Tammy Skrabek describes the vicious attack of a foreign student caught on surveillance video and talks about why police are so concerned about it.

Const. Tammy Skrabek said the video released was halted just as the attack began "because the general public does not need to see this type of violence."

The teen was ​punched, kicked and knocked to the ground, where the beating continued "to the point that this poor victim was unable to move," she said.

Police didn't know initially who the attacker was but within two hours of putting out a plea for information and releasing surveillance video images, they were able to identify Snakeskin, Skrabek said.

"It was observant people" who helped out, she said.

When the pickup truck was stolen in Gimli, Thordarson posted on social media that the thief looked like the man from the police images. That posting was shared several times.

She wants to emphasize how grateful she is people shared the post. In her truck, Snakeskin had her keys and registration — including her address — and she said she couldn't rest easy until she knew he was caught.

"I think that the public had a big effect in catching him," she said.

When the fuel was stolen, the gas jockey also phoned police and identified the thief as Snakeskin, Skrabek said.

"It's very comforting to know we can say … we need the public's help, and to know that we're going to get feedback and it's going to come to a successful ending."

The teen is recovering out of hospital in the care of family members but will need medical follow-up in a few weeks, Skrabek said.

Problems at Portage Place

The bus shelter where the beating occurred is attached to the front of Portage Place Shopping Centre, a place quite familiar to police as the scene of criminal activity.

"It's not unknown throughout this city that police are often called to Portage Place," Skrabek said.

"We've conducted a large number of drug investigations at Portage Place in the past — we have security that's on it [criminal activity], we work very closely with the Downtown BIZ and the [Downtown] Watch members, as well as our cadets monitoring it."

Activists demonstrated in March 2017, saying drug deals outside the back of Portage Place Shopping Centre have gotten out of control. (Austin Grabish / CBC)

Just in the last year, a Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service crew had their vehicle stolen while helping a patient at the mall, and police arrested a man in the mall parking lot after he threatened a security guard with a handgun and pointed the weapon at officers.

In another incident, officers who were called about intoxicated men causing a disturbance found one of them with ammunition and a debit card stolen during a robbery and stabbing. 

The problems prompted a group of Indigenous activists in March 2017 to demonstrate at the mall and confront drug dealers, who they say have got out of control.

They spoke about women, children and elders not feeling safe to walk around the neighbourhood and said one elder was robbed after taking a photo of an alleged drug deal.

"It's always been an area of some concern, I think because of its central location," Skrabek said.

"All I can say is we know that there's issues there, and officers and beat [patrol] people and the community are really trying their hardest to move these people out of the area, but it's not an easy task."

Suspect who attacked foreign student leads police on chase

5 years ago
Duration 2:34
Joshua Snakeskin had just been released from a federal prison on weapons charges when he assaulted a student and went on a crime spree that included a carjacking, assault on the driver, as well as the theft of a pickup truck.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.