DETROIT — Tony Leno was taking a smoking break outside the Toledo, Ohio, church where he works when a tall, muscular white man pulled over in his Chevy Blazer, got out and asked him for directions.

As the 59-year-old custodian turned to point the way, the stranger – apparently without word or warning – stabbed him twice in the abdomen, got back into his vehicle and drove off into the night.

Authorities say they’re not certain, but they strongly suspect the assailant is a serial killer who has attacked 20 men in Michigan, Ohio and Virginia since May, killing five and wounding others, including Leno, who remains hospitalized in critical condition.

The first 16 attacks happened in and around the working-class city of Flint. The city is predominantly black, and even though all but two of the Michigan victims were black men, detectives there have been hesitant to say the attacks were motivated by racial hatred. Survivors said their assailant said little during the attacks – and nothing about race.

But authorities in Leesburg, Va., a predominantly white city where three of the most recent attacks occurred, believe the three victims there were chosen because they are black.

“I believe his motivation is pure hatred,” Leesburg Police Chief Joseph Price said at a Tuesday news conference in which he released a short video clip of the vehicle the suspect drove after attacking a 19-year-old man with a hammer. He said police also have footage of that attack but won’t be releasing it.

Federal and state law enforcement agencies trying to track down the killer have been reluctant to disclose details of what they’ve found out, and they haven’t released most of the names of those targeted.

State Police First Lt. Patrick McGreevy, who heads the Michigan task force investigating the attacks, declined to say much about the case on Tuesday but said investigators are poring over state prison records and past cases that are similar in nature.

“A nationwide intelligence broadcast has gone out, and we’re monitoring any incoming information from any state,” McGreevy said. “We don’t know what is in his head. What we do know is there has been a string of very, very violent and deadly attacks in Genesee County, and attacks in Leesburg that are similar.”

N. G. Berrill, the executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavior Science, who has studied serial killer behavior but who is not involved in the current case, said authorities are working against the clock to try to prevent further attacks because the suspect is unlikely to stop on his own.

“It’s a run rabbit run phenomena,” said Berrill, who compared the current case to the spate of knife attacks to the Beltway sniper case in which 10 people were shot to death in a three-week period in the Washington, D.C. area.

“They are not intending on receding into the darkness,” Berrill told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “They are on a spree and they are going to continue until somebody stops them. Because he is on this spree and going to a couple of different states, I don’t know if they can predict where he is going next.”

Michigan authorities said they didn’t realize they were dealing with serial killer until Aug. 4, more than two months after the first suspected attack on May 24 in Flint. Since then, the attack in Ohio and the three in Virginia have been linked to the assailant.

Investigators say the young, muscular suspect drives a green Chevy Blazer, and has struck about once every four days since the first attack.


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