Teen girls charged with murder in Toronto 'swarming' death were after liquor bottle: witness

An alleged "swarming" attack in Toronto may have started when the eight teen girls charged in the slaying tried to take a liquor bottle from the victim and his friend, the friend says.

Sociologist says there's no reason to believe there's a surge in female youth crime

An overhead shot at busy downtown Toronto intersection, where cars and people can be seen.
The swarming incident took place steps away from Union Station in downtown Toronto. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Warning: This story includes graphic details.

An alleged "swarming" attack in Toronto started when the eight teen girls charged in the slaying tried to take a liquor bottle from the victim and his friend, the friend says.

That witness, whom CBC Toronto has agreed not to name because they belong to a vulnerable community, said she was smoking a cigarette with the man outside a downtown shelter early Sunday when the group of teens approached them and attempted to take her alcohol. 

The 59-year-old victim, who police have not publicly identified, told the girls to leave the two of them alone, the woman said.

"He protected me," she said.

That's when the group of girls started to punch him repeatedly, she recalled. Frightened by the violence, she walked away while one of the girls followed her. She said she could see lots of blood.

"Bleeding, bleeding, bleeding. I didn't know if they had a knife or what. I was just scared," she said. "I think they stabbed his belly."

She said she went into the shelter and brought him water afterwards. "I didn't know he would die," she said.

In an interview on Wednesday, Toronto police Det.-Sgt. Terry Browne said investigators believe there was an attempted theft — "likely of a liquor bottle" — during the initial phase of the deadly encounter.

"I don't want to expand on that because we don't have all the moving parts right now. But we do believe that does form part of the narrative involved in this," he said.

The attack happened at about 12:15 a.m. local time, near the corner of York Street and University Avenue, just steps from Union Station. The victim was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Browne, who has been a homicide detective for 19 years, called it a "shocking" killing and said it is unlike anything he's investigated before.

"I can't recall a situation where eight females have been involved in something like this."

Teens charged with 2nd-degree murder

At a news conference on Tuesday, Browne said the victim was beaten and stabbed by the group, which included three 13- year-olds, three 14-year-olds and two 16-year-olds. All eight have been charged with second-degree murder. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act. 

Browne said police chose to charge all eight with second-degree murder because each girl "played a role" in the slaying.

"All eight were together. All eight were involved," he said Wednesday. "I won't say what each one individually did, but all eight were together and participating in this event, which is disturbing."

Police are operating under the assumption that the teens met on social media, Browne said, but it's not yet clear how or why they ended up downtown late Saturday and into Sunday morning. They all live in different parts of the city, he said.

WATCH | Friend of man killed in alleged swarming says he was a 'nice guy': 

Alleged ‘swarming’ attack heightens concern for those living on the street

3 months ago
Duration 2:02
An alleged "swarming" attack in Toronto that left a 59-year-old man dead has heightened concerns for those who are homeless as police reveal more details about the night of the attack. Eight teen girls are facing second-degree murder charges.

Three had had "prior contact" with police, he added. Investigators have no evidence that the victim was known to them, Browne said.

Police have spoken to the parents of each of the teens, he told CBC Toronto.

"As you can probably imagine, everyone was shocked. Probably like getting hit by a Mack truck."

The fatal swarming was preceded by an earlier incident involving the girls that Browne only described as "criminal activity." Police arrested all eight when they responded to a third incident shortly after the swarming and "pieced together the dots" that the group had been involved in all three.

All of the teens appeared in court on the weekend, with further court appearances scheduled for Dec. 29.

Browne said police wouldn't describe the girls as a gang at this point, but investigators are calling the incident a "swarming," which he said normally involves selecting a target to victimize. Swarming was more prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Browne said, and "primarily involved young adolescent males finding themselves in conflict."

People walk in downtown Toronto.
The deadly attack happened near the corner of York Street and University Avenue in Toronto. (CBC)

As of Wednesday morning, police were still trying to contact the victim's elderly parents, he said. Once that has been done, his identity will be released publicly.

Browne said the man had only recently entered into the city's shelter system and that he had supportive extended family in the area.

"I wouldn't necessarily call him homeless, just recently on some hard luck," Browne said.

Crime a 'rare event,' sociologist says

Jennifer Silcox, an assistant sociology professor at Western University in London, Ont., says while a crime of this nature can incite "moral panic," which is widespread and often irrational fear, there's no reason to believe this is part of a trending violence among young girls.

"Girls commit half the amount of crimes that boys have committed, and there's just been a 20-year decline in youth crime," said Silcox, who specializes in gender, youth crime and media. 

Instead, she emphasized that this is a rare event.

"Girls are more often likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are likely to be perpetrators of violent crime," Silcox said. 

Youth cabinet calls for more support 

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

Police appealing for information

The death was the 68th homicide in Toronto in 2022. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement that he is "deeply disturbed" by the details of the case.

"Everyone in our city deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I am so saddened to know that a man has lost his life in this way," he said.

"I am extremely troubled by the young age of those accused and by the number of people allegedly involved in this murder. My thoughts are with this man's friends and all those who knew him as they mourn his loss."

Police are appealing for information from anyone who was in the area of the attack between about 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 a.m. Sunday

With files from CBC's Meagan Fitzpatrick, Dale Manucdoc, Muriel Draaisma and The Canadian Press