Employees of Pilot Travel Center in Ontario and police restrain a suspect after a stabbing on Saturday, Dec. 21 that hospitalized Ronnell T. Hughes. (Frank LeClair/Special to the Enterprise)

UPDATE: This story includes new information that the employees who stopped the attack worked for Pilot Travel Center, not Arby's.

ONTARIO – A truck driver told police he stabbed Ronnell T. Hughes as he sat at a dining booth in an Ontario restaurant “because he was black,” according to a police affidavit.

Hughes, 48, a newcomer to Ontario, apparently never saw the man coming at him with a knife on Saturday morning at the Arby’s restaurant inside the Pilot Travel Center on East Idaho Avenue. The attacker slashed at Hughes’ neck, causing deep wounds that police later described as life threatening.

Two truck stop workers got the attacker off Hughes and wrestled him to the floor as two other employees ran to Hughes, working to stanch his wounds.

Police subsequently arrested Nolan L. Strauss, 26, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Strauss was arraigned in Malheur County Circuit Court on Monday afternoon on charges of second-degree attempted murder, first-degree assault, and first-degree bias, and unlawful use of a weapon. He is being held on $250,000 bail.

Hughes initially was treated at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario before being taken to Saint Alphonsus in Boise. He underwent hours of surgery on Saturday and, according to his girlfriend, was in an induced coma on Sunday that has since been ended.

The Ontario Police Department, leading the investigation, said in a press release on Saturday that the “motive for the attack leans heavily towards a racially motivated crime.”

Ben Esplin, lead detective on the case for the Ontario police, said that "the suspect made some statements that he did what he did because of the color of the victim's skin." He said the statements were made as Strauss was being arrested at the scene.

Police were investigating Strauss's background and intended to search the commercial truck he was driving, Esplin said.

An affidavit filed in Malheur County Circuit Court said that Oregon State Police detectives Ryan Mills and Clay Stevens questioned Strauss after he was arrested.

DOCUMENT: Ontario Police Department affidavit

“The suspect said he chose the victim at random due to the color of his skin” and that “he hates black people,” according to the affidavit. The suspect said “his intent was to kill the victim.”

Strauss told police that he had a “history of mental health issues in the state of Nebraska” and that he was diagnosed as bipolar in 2016 “but hasn’t been taking medication.”

The daylight attack in a busy travel center just days before Christmas shocked the community.

Nolan L. Strauss, 26, accused of attacking man in Ontario restaurant on Saturday, Dec. 21. (Photo courtesy Malheur County Sheriff's Office)

“The fact that racially motivated attacks are happening in our backyards is not ok. How is racism still a thing?” one person wrote in a Facebook, one of dozens of people who took to social media about the assault.

Mackey’s restaurant in downtown Ontario plans to use its monthly community fundraising dinner to raise support for Hughes. The restaurant is dedicating 20% of its sales from Tuesday, Dec. 31, to the cause and conducting a silent auction that night as well. Hughes had started working at the restaurant the night before he was attacked.

“What does that show for our community?” asked Angie Grove, who with her husband Shawn owns Mackey’s. “How can we make this better?”

The truck stop owner, Flying J in Knoxville, Tennessee, declined to answer questions but said in a statement, “We are cooperating fully with local authorities who are investigating the incident.”

Ronnell T. Hughes is recovering in a Boise hospital after he was stabbed in Ontario on Saturday, Dec. 21, in what police said was an unprovoked racial attack. (Nikita Apodaca/Special to the Enterprise)

Hughes, a military veteran, moved to Ontario from Sanford, North Carolina, to connect up with his girlfriend, Nikita Apodaca.

Apodaca told the Enterprise on Sunday that she was a native of Ontario and lived two years in North Carolina, where she met Hughes. He was a restaurant cook there, she said.

She returned to Ontario in 2018, and Hughes joined her just in October. He had never been to the West before.

“He’s been looking for work since he got here,” Apodaca said. “He’s a very laid back. He’s very respectful. He wouldn’t start any fights with anybody.”

On Friday, Dec. 20, Hughes started a new job as a cook at Mackey’s. The work was part-time and he asked Angie Grove if he could look for another part-time job as well. She said yes.

Grove said Fridays are busy times at the restaurant so she didn’t have much time to talk with Hughes.

“He jumped right in,” Grove said. “He’s a super nice guy” that other employees took an instant liking to, she said.

Hughes clocked out of his first shift at 9 p.m. and about 12 hours later, walked into the Arby’s.

Apodaca said he had gotten a part-time job there.

“He took his paperwork in there to start work,” Apodaca said. “The lady asked him to have a seat and wait for her.”

According to police and what Apodaca was later told, the attacker circled Hughes and then stabbed him in the neck repeatedly with a knife. He didn’t say a word and the two hadn’t met, police said.

Apodaca said two Travel Center employees subdued the attacker while two others tended to Hughes’ wounds.

Frank LeClair, a customer in the travel center at the time, said an employee fetched a belt and the workers used that to tie the suspect’s hands. He said Hughes tried to walk out but he “hunkered down against an ATM” and pressed paper towels to his wounds before medics arrived.

Police said Strauss, the suspect, was driving a truck for May Trucking Co., hauling a load of meat. The press release originally listed him as being from Nebraska but he gave a Colorado Springs address when he was booked into the Malheur County Jail. Strauss had been living in his truck in the parking lot at the Ontario truck stop for two days before the attack, he told police.

Apodaca said she and Hughes planned on Christmas at home, having dinner and opening presents.

Now, she’s keeping vigil at the Boise hospital.

Police tape off the scene of a stabbing at the Pilot Travel Center on East Idaho Avenue in Ontario on Saturday, Dec. 21. (Frank LeClair/Special to the Enterprise)

DINNER CHALLENGE TO HELP HUGHES

Mackey’s in Ontario is challenging other area restaurants to join in on a fundraiser for the victim of Saturday’s stabbing.

Angie Grove, who owns the restaurant with her husband, said the restaurant typically teams up with a local nonprofit the last Tuesday of each month to raise funds.

She said this time, 20% of proceeds on Tuesday, Dec. 31, will go to Ronnell T. Hughes, who had started worked at Mackey’s the night before he was stabbed.

The restaurant also intends to host a silent auction that evening.

Donors can drop off contributions and items at the restaurant during its business hours, which are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Grove said restaurants that want to join in the cause can contact her at Mackey’s at 541-889-3678. The restaurant is at 111 S.W. First St., Ontario.

Reporters Joe Siess, Yadira Lopez and Pat Caldwell contributed to this report.

Contact Les Zaitz: [email protected]