Eight teenage girls have been charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of a 59-year-old man in Toronto, police say.

Police have not released the man’s name because his next of kin is still being notified.

Three of the girls are 13 years old, three are 14 years old and two are 16 years old, according to Det.-Sgt. Terry Browne of Toronto police’s homicide unit. Three had previous contact with police, he said.

Police believe the girls met on social media. None of their identities can be released under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The girls appeared in court at Old City Hall on Sunday, were remanded into custody and are due in court again on Dec. 29.

Police have no evidence that suggests that the girls knew their alleged victim.

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.

At a news conference Tuesday, Browne told reporters a group of people flagged down emergency medical services staff in the York Street and University Area — in the city’s downtown core just north of Union Station — on Sunday around 12:15 a.m.

Police said the group of teen girls allegedly assaulted and stabbed the man.

Unclear why girls met that night

Browne said the man was socializing with another person when the group of eight approached him. Police don’t yet know why the girls did so or why things escalated, Browne said.

The entire incident unfolded over the span of three minutes, he said. 

The man was taken to hospital by paramedics with life-threatening injuries and died a short time later, police said.

Officers from 52 Division arrested the girls nearby and recovered a number of weapons, Browne said. Police have not said what those weapons were.

Police believe the girls came from various parts of the city, but don’t know how or why the met that night. Investigators also don’t know how long the girls have known each other, Browne said.

“We really can’t see what the [connection] is with these eight young ladies right now. But our sense is, right now, that there’s probably some sort of social media component to it,” Browne told Here and Now.

The girls were also involved in an altercation before the stabbing, said Browne, describing their behaviour as criminal. The earlier incident is believed to be “similar in style to the swarming,” he said.

Police believe the group was in the area at least by 10:30 p.m.

‘He protected me,’ witness says of victim

Police say the victim moved into Toronto’s homeless shelter system in late fall and had a supportive family system.

“He is not someone that I would describe as someone who appears or has been homeless for a long period of time,” he told Here and Now.

A resident of the homeless shelter at the Strathcona Hotel, who didn’t want her name to be used, told CBC Toronto she was smoking a cigarette with the man outside the shelter when the group of girls approached them. She said the girls tried to take her alcohol. The man told them to stop and leave her alone, she said. 

“He protected me,” she said.

The girls punched him repeatedly, she added. She walked away because she was frightened and one of the girls tried to follow her.

“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.

The death marks the city’s 68th homicide of the year.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement on Tuesday night 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,” he added.

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