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Toronto police say the accused teenagers appear to have talked to each other mostly on the internet before deciding to meet up in real life.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Police say eight girls, all between the ages of 13 and 16, swarmed, stabbed and killed a man who was living in downtown Toronto’s shelter system during a midnight attack that may have been unleashed in hopes of stealing a bottle of liquor.

Authorities also say the accused Toronto teenagers appear to have talked to each other mostly on the internet before deciding to meet up in real life on Saturday night – possibly for the first time.

“They met each other through social media. They come from varying parts of the city,” Toronto Police Detective Sergeant Terry Browne told reporters during a news conference Tuesday. “We don’t know how or why they met on that evening or why the destination was downtown Toronto. We don’t know how long they have been acquainted together.”

The excursion started around 10:30 p.m. Saturday and it ended shortly after midnight Sunday when they were located and arrested by police.

The victim, a 59-year-old man who had fallen on hard times, died in hospital that night. Police say he had started living on the streets and in shelters this fall. That was before he was attacked at Front Street and University Avenue, a downtown intersection where glitzy new condominium towers now dwarf the Royal York Hotel and Union Station.

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The man had “probably been in the shelter system for three to four months,” said Det. Sgt. Browne, who is withholding the victim’s identity while police notify next of kin.

Police seized several weapons, which they are not describing fully. While the instruments were sharp-edged, they are not necessarily knives. “I won’t get into specifics but whatever it was, it was sufficient to cause puncture-stab wounds,” Det. Sgt. Browne told a Globe and Mail reporter.

Speaking after the news conference, the detective said the suspects likely attacked the man because he was spotted carrying alcohol. “It’s our belief, right now, that the now-deceased was in possession of a liquor bottle,” he said. “And we think that’s what they were trying to take – but we can’t say with certainty.”

Police have seized some surveillance camera footage, but they are appealing for more footage and witnesses. Investigators believe the accused girls may have gotten into other fights downtown prior to the deadly swarming. “If you were a victim or had contact with these individuals, we would like to hear from you.”

The accused will now spend Christmas in jail ahead of a scheduled Dec. 29 court appearance. All of their identities are shielded under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, but police say three of the suspects are 13-year-old girls, another three are 14-year-old girls and two are 16-year-old girls.

Each now faces a count of second-degree murder. “All eight participated in this event and it was a swarming-type event,” Det. Sgt. Browne told The Globe. “The actual incident, proper, lasted almost three minutes long. ... This attack was prolonged and it was a back and forth on the victim. So, walked away, walked toward, walked away, walked toward.”

Police are not calling the teenagers a gang. In Toronto, youth gangs are typically clustered in areas of the city with members often hailing from specific neighbourhoods.

But the arrested girls are a far-flung group whose lives appear to have somehow intersected on the internet.

“The anomaly with this group of young women, young ladies, is they come from all parts of the city,” Det. Sgt. Browne said. He said that “these eight individuals – from what we’ve gathered so far – met each other from social media.” He did not name any specific online platforms.

While three of the eight girls have had run-ins with police, the other five had had no such prior contact with law-enforcement officials.

There has been at least one past prominent case in Canada of teenage girls committing a deadly swarming attack.

In 1997, several B.C. teens, most of them female, assaulted, beat and drowned 14-year-old Reena Virk. The public discourse around that crime – often described as at the time as a national tragedy – continued for years.

But while the Virk case involved an escalating pattern of bullying, Det. Sgt. Browne said the Toronto crime he is probing is fundamentally different.

“This was a random interaction. We have nothing to suggest that any of these suspects knew the victim,” he said. “There was a potential target available and for whatever reason they all decided to act in concert.”

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