By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Three U.S. Army soldiers have entered not guilty pleas in the stabbing death of a fellow serviceman in Washington state that police initially said was a possible anti-white hate crime, but which authorities later concluded stemmed from "trash talk."
Jeremiah Hill, 23, who is accused of killing 20-year-old Tevin Geike in a Tacoma suburb early Saturday morning, was charged with first-degree murder and held on $2 million bail. Two fellow soldiers who allegedly helped dispose of the knife and hide other evidence, Cedarium Johnson and Ajoni Runnion-Bareford, both 21, were charged with rendering criminal assistance in the first degree, a class B felony.
Runnion-Bareford was held on $250,000 bail while Johnson was released without bail but confined to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the military base where all those involved in the incident were stationed as active-duty soldiers.
"This was a senseless and sad murder where a soldier killed a fellow soldier for no reason," said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist in a written statement. "Our prayers go out to the family and friends of Specialist Geike. He served our country honorably, and it breaks our hearts to see him lose his life in a cowardly street stabbing."
Two other soldiers who were with the defendants at the time of the incident have cooperated with investigators and will not be charged, Lindquist said.
Geike, who was white, had been walking with two other soldiers on Saturday in a Tacoma suburb after leaving a party at a nearby motel, Lindquist said in a statement released Tuesday. A car drove by and the African-American occupants yelled "an unspecified racial slur" to the three men, who are all Caucasian, according to the statement.
More words were exchanged, and even as the situation appeared to defuse, Geike was stabbed to death in violence police initially said may have been racially motivated. But by Monday, authorities said it appeared that verbal sparring of a more general nature had preceded the stabbing.
After the stabbing, Hill was covered in blood and told his companions that he "cut" the victim, the cooperating witnesses told investigators. Johnson directed the car's driver to head from the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood to the nearby town of Tillicum, where he then told Runnion-Bareford to throw the knife into the roadside brush, Lindquist said.
Upon returning to the military base, Runnion-Bareford tried to clean the blood from the car, which he owned, and parked it blocks from his barracks to avoid suspicion, Lindquist said.
Over the weekend, Hill requested assistance from an Army medic to treat a cut on his hand, telling him that it happened when he "stabbed someone to death," according to Lindquist. Investigators recovered bloody clothing from Hill's and Johnson's rooms and also retrieved the knife they believe was used in the stabbing, Lindquist said.
An autopsy showed that Geike sustained two stab wounds, one superficial and another that pierced his heart. He died from his wounds at the scene.
Attorneys for the three defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.
Geike was from Summerville, South Carolina, and held the rank of specialist, a base spokesman said. He entered the Army in 2010 and arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2011 after training to be an aviation operations specialist.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Bob Burgdorfer)