CNN — Three soldiers have been arrested in connection with Saturday's stabbing death of a fellow soldier who was celebrating his pending departure from the Army -- an attack that police in Washington state now say doesn't appear to be racially motivated.
Jeremiah Hill, 23; Cedarium Johnson, 21; and Ajoni Runnion-Bareford, 21, were arrested on charges of murder in the death of Army Spc. Tevin Geike, police said.
All four were assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, not far from the Lakewood sidewalk where police say Geike was accosted as he walked with two friends early Saturday.
Police initially said they were investigating the death as a possible hate crime after witnesses said a black assailant directed a racial comment toward Geike, who was white, and his white friends shortly before the stabbings.
But interviews with all involved now lead investigators to believe that race was not a motivating factor, Lakewood police said Monday, without elaborating.
Geike, 20, of Summerville, South Carolina, was walking along a Lakewood street with two fellow soldiers after 2 a.m. Saturday when a car carrying five black men passed, with one of the occupants yelling a comment about the three being white, police initially said.
One of the soldiers, Brian Johnson, told CNN affiliate KIRO that someone in the car yelled "something like 'white' and 'cracker.'"
The third soldier, Matthew Barnes, told KIRO that he yelled back: "So this is how we treat combat veterans now?"
The vehicle turned around and stopped, and five black men got out, police said.
The groups exchanged words, but the five began retreating once they realized they were all soldiers, police said.
But Hill stabbed Geike -- and cut himself in the process -- before they left, authorities said, citing one of Hill's companions who police said they interviewed.
Barnes said Geike died in his arms.
"I'm sitting here holding him, trying to stop the bleeding with my right hand and calling 911 in my left, trying ... to get them here," Barnes told KIRO. "Right before I got off the phone, I couldn't feel a heartbeat anymore, and he was gone."
Geike, Barnes and Brian Johnson were on their way to a celebration of Geike's upcoming discharge from the Army, Barnes told KIRO.
Suspect asked for first aid, police say
Police said they made the arrests after Hill asked a fellow soldier for help mending his hand for a knife wound. That solider, claiming Hill told him he wounded the hand when he killed someone, told a sergeant, police said.
According to police, Hill told the sergeant he injured the hand while cutting vegetables. Hill eventually went to a hospital, where he claimed he hurt the hand while cutting parachute cord, police said.
The sergeant went to police. Later, investigators identified and talked to a man who was among the five in the car. That man told investigators that Hill had bear-hugged Geike and pushed him to the ground, and that Hill was covered in blood when he got into the car, police said.
The five sped away and got rid of the knife, police said, citing the unidentified witness. A second person corroborated the witness's account, according to police.
Police didn't say how Cedarium Johnson or Runnion-Bareford were involved.
They also didn't say why they don't believe the incident was racially motivated, except to cite interviews from "everyone involved." Hill did not talk to investigators, who still do not know why the stabbing happened, police said.
Geike, an aviation operations specialist, joined the Army in October 2010 and arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in April 2011.
Hill, Cedarium Johnson and Runnion-Bareford, as well as their two companions, were assigned to a combat infantry unit at the base, police said.
By Sunday, friends of Geike had placed flowers, a balloon and a sign on a sidewalk where the stabbing happened. Barnes said Geike was a good man and a great soldier.
"They were looking for trouble," Barnes told KIRO of the assailants. "They were looking for someone to attack. And we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
CNN's Jake Carpenter contributed to this report.
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