(CNN) -- A white U.S. soldier who friends say was celebrating his pending departure from the Army was fatally stabbed by at least one black assailant over the weekend in a racially charged confrontation, police in Washington state said.
Spc. Tevin A. Geike, 20, of Summerville, SC, died after being stabbed early Saturday in Lakewood, not far from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he was based, according to base officials.
Police are trying to determine who killed Geike, who they said was walking with two other soldiers in Lakewood after 2 a.m. Saturday when someone in a passing car yelled a comment about the three being white.
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 appearing to be in their mid-20s got out, police said.
The groups exchanged words, and the driver called off his friends when he realized the three were soldiers, police said. But as the five retreated to the car, one appeared to bump into Geike, who fell as the five sped away in the car, Geike's companions told police.
Geike had been stabbed. 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."
Investigators are trying to determine whether to classify the stabbing as a hate crime, Lakewood police Lt. Chris Lawler told the News Tribune of Tacoma.
"We're certainly looking at it now as a potential hate crime. We're not going to say that it is, but according to two guys at the scene, it appears to be racially motivated," Lawler told the News Tribune.
Geike, an aviation operations specialist, joined the Army in October 2010 and arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in April 2011.
The three soldiers were on their way to a celebration of Geike's upcoming discharge from the Army, Barnes told KIRO.
By Sunday, friends 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."
Police said they're looking for a midnight blue four-door car, possibly a BMW or a Volkswagen Jetta, with tinted windows, stock rims and low-profile tires.
CNN's Jason Hanna and Jake Carpenter contributed to this report.
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