RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Police in the quiet coastal town of New Bern, North Carolina have a grisly multiple slaying to investigate, allegedly committed by a neighbor who "speaks very little English, if any," and doesn't share the language of his victims, even though they're all refugees from Myanmar.
Eh Lar Doh Htoo, 18, was appointed a defense attorney and advised of his rights Thursday, then held without bond on three counts of murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.
The hearing was scheduled, delayed and then held with little notice once a court-certified translator was found to dial into the courtroom.
Htoo is an ethnic Karen refugee from Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Police say he carried a machete into his next-door neighbor's home late Tuesday night and used it to kill three boys, ages 1, 5 and 12, then slashed the mother before she and her 14-year-old daughter escaped the house.
The father of the victims, ethnic Karennis who also fled Myanmar, was at work at the time.
Htoo was still holding the weapon when officers arrived, New Bern Police Chief Toussaint Summers Jr. said.
Sounds of screams, barking dogs and police sirens woke the neighbors in a cluster of about 10 homes that face a railroad track and several dilapidated commercial buildings.
Responding officers entered the home at about 11 p.m. after the mother, herself bleeding from a stab wound in the back, jumped out a window and pleaded with neighbors to get help.
They found two of the boys already dead; a third died at the hospital.
Police were trying to figure out a motive, interviewing the suspect and witnesses with the help of local interpreters from the Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a local group that has helped resettle refugees.
"You can't always tell when a person understands or speaks English," Summers said Wednesday. "So we'll have to do some more investigation and see from his acquaintances if he can speak English."
Under the federal refugee admissions program, 70,000 legal refugees can enter the United States each year. About 1,900 from Myanmar have settled in New Bern with the help of faith-based agencies.
Outsiders tend to call them all "Burmese," but refugees from this part of Southeast Asia are by no means monolithic — they include various ethnic groups that were subjected to decades of violent oppression, and don't always share a common tongue. The community in New Bern includes Karen, Chin, Shan and Karenni — all distinct cultures in Myanmar.
"The victims are Karenni. The accused man is Karen. They speak different languages," said Cookie Davenport, who began working with refugees 9 years ago through the Temple Baptist Church, helping families navigate everything from doctor's visits to leases and buying homes.
While some refugees become active members of the larger community, others keep to themselves, said Susan Husson, executive director of the local Interfaith Refugee Ministry.
"If you're asking about ethnic tension, I'd say no," it hasn't been a factor in this community, she said.
The first family from the country now known as Myanmar arrived in the area in 1999, fleeing a 50-year dictatorship. The violence continues: Clashes between the national army and several insurgent groups last year were displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
The New Bern area is attractive to re-settlement groups because the immigrants can get jobs in factories that include a Moen bathroom fixtures plant, a Bosch dishwasher assembly plant and several poultry and meat processing plants.
"We have a low cost of living. We have nine or so factories, which is unusual for a small town that's a tourist destination. There's work for people here. The cost of housing is low," Husson said.
Some refugees assimilate more quickly than others. Each family gets a no-interest travel loan from the International Organization for Migration that they pay back once they have a job.
"The government really expects that people will be employed and self-sufficient within four to six months so that's the goal we aim for," she said.
Davenport has been impressed by their work ethic.
"They don't mind working in the middle of the night because they need to support their family," she said. "They are not a proud people where any job is beneath them."
The slayings, Davenport said, has united community members in prayer. "They're all grieving together," Davenport said.
Ner Wah is another Karen refugee, who works night shifts at the Bosch plant. His back yard lines up behind the row houses of the victims and the suspect, who lived with his mother. But Wah said he didn't know the victims, even though they lived less than 50 yards away.
Karen families help each other out, he said — he has translated documents for other immigrants, including Htoo. But Wah said the young man frightened him, recalling previous occasions when Htoo knocked on his door in the middle of the night, acting angrily and erratic.
Standing on his front porch while his wife cooked on a nearby grill, Wah shook his head considering what happened to the family.
"It was very scary. I have three kids," he said.
Several doors down lives another Karen couple from Myanmar who came to the U.S. by way of a refugee camp in Thailand. A Lay and his wife, A Bu, took in the wounded mother and called police that night, but they too said they hardly knew her.
"I saw her sometimes," Bu said. "I didn't know her well."
Htoo's next court date is April 2. A statement from District Attorney Scott Thomas said he "is of Burmese origin, and speaks very little English, if any," so future proceedings "will be translated into the particular Burmese dialect that HTOO understands."
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh contributed to this report.