Police in western Washington state were looking for five black suspects in the stabbing death of a white U.S. Army soldier in what authorities said on Sunday may have been a racially motivated killing.

“We are exploring the possibility that this could be a hate crime or racially motivated,” said Lakewood Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Chris Lawler. “We won’t know exactly what the motive is until we interview the suspects.”

The victim, identified by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office as Tevin Geike, 20, was walking with two fellow soldiers early Saturday morning in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood when a car drove past them and its occupants yelled “something about being white,” according to witness statements summarized in a Lakewood Police Department news release.

One of the soldiers — all of whom were white and stationed at the nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord — expressed displeasure about those in the car “treating combat soldiers with disrespect,” the police statement said.

The car turned around and came to a stop and five black men in their mid-20s emerged from it. After a verbal confrontation, the driver of the car called his friends off upon learning that the soldiers were in fact combat veterans, the police statement said.

As the suspects were returning to the car, one of them “appeared to bump into the victim,” and he fell to the ground as the car sped away, the report said.

Geike’s friends then realized that he’d been stabbed and was bleeding profusely, the statement said. Emergency medical workers came and treated him, but he was pronounced dead at the scene from multiple stab wounds.

Geike was from Summerville, South Carolina, and held the rank of specialist, a base spokesman said. He entered the Army in 2010 and arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2011 after training to be an aviation operations specialist.