For two hate crime victims, jail not justice

While her teenage son was locked up in Rikers Island for weeks in October charged along with 10 others in a brutal anti-gay hate crime, Ada Cepeda was so devastated she stopped eating. The Dominican mother lost 12 pounds in a little over two weeks.
Two of the four men cleared in the Bronx anti-gay hate crime are listed as victims in indictment. Photo by Amara Grautski

Two former suspects in Bronx anti-gay hate crime now listed as victims in the indictment. Photo by Amara Grautski

She was certain her 16-year-old son had been falsely accused, but the truth turned out to be much worse. In another cell, Brian’s 16-year-old friend Bryan Almonte had been arrested for the same crime and placed in protective custody because he suffers from epilepsy and diabetes. Bryan’s incarceration had come only a couple months after his father died from a heart attack in the Dominican Republic.

On October 26, the District Attorney dropped charges against these two youth and two others, citing simply that there was “no sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.” What city and law enforcement officials neglected to announce a week later was that Cepeda and Almonte were not only released from custody, they were identified as victims of the crime they were accused of committing.

According to the November 4 indictment unsealed on December 1, five of the seven men charged with aggravated sexual abuse, robbery and assault stand accused of threatening to hurt Cepeda with pliers during the October 3rd attack. They also are charged with intentionally hurting Almonte.

The police had originally claimed there were four victims, three of whom were assaulted, sodomized and tortured at a Morris Heights apartment by a gang of Bronx men who yelled anti-gay epithets. Now the total tally of victims is not four but six, according to the court document, with the offense against Cepeda listed as a hate crime.

When asked about the upgraded victim count, a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s office said he would not comment because the case is still ongoing.

Politicians and city officials expressed outrage in early October in the wake of the heinous assault that made national and international headlines, urging the district attorney to make sure justice is served.

“These suspects had employed terrible wolf pack odds,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley said at an October 8 press conference. “Odds which reveal them as predators whose crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.”

At the same press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was “sickened” by the attacks. “The heartless men who committed these crimes should know that their fellow New Yorkers will not tolerate their vicious acts or the hatred that fuels them,” he said.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a statement that same day, calling the attacks  “appalling” and “despicable.” And when Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson dropped charges against Almonte, Cepeda, Steven Caraballo and Denis Peitars on October 26, Quinn expressed her disappointment and said she hoped the remaining suspects would be aggressively prosecuted.

But after the indictment was released last week naming two of the four released suspects as victims, most city officials were silent, except for Quinn, who would not back away from her original condemnation.

“This week’s indictments send a message that if anyone dares to commit such acts of hate in any of our five boroughs, they will be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Quinn said in a December 8 statement to the BronxInk. “Although I am disappointed by the District Attorney’s dismissals of four of the accused men, I appreciate the work of the office in bringing the remaining suspects to the grand jury.”

The BronxInk contacted a Quinn spokesperson on December 8 to confirm that despite new details revealing that two of the four released young men were actually victims, this was her opinion. In an e-mail, Eunic Ortiz informed the BronxInk that this was Quinn’s latest statement.

While the indictment offers more details of the crime, it did not clarify the involvement, or lack there of, of the other two men who were released.

Caraballo’s mother told The Bronx Ink four weeks ago that a gang member had held a gun to her son’s head the night of the assaults. That detail was not mentioned in the indictment. According to early court documents, Caraballo had hit a young man in the face with a closed fist.

The New York Daily News also published a story on October 10 saying “several members of the Latin King Goonies told detectives they would have been slashed and beaten if they did not help torment the defenseless victims.” The statement suggested in early October that some of the suspects may have been coerced, but the indictment offers no clarification.

Brian Cepeda and Steven Caraballo found refuge inside their apartment building after being released from jail. Photo by Irasema Romero

Brian Cepeda and Steven Caraballo found refuge inside their apartment building after being released from jail. Photo by Irasema Romero

After weeks of anxiety and facing the unknown in prison, Almonte, Cepeda and their respective families were left hoping for a public apology. Now a month and a half after their release, Ada Cepeda is still waiting.

“Who put an apology in the papers? No one,” Cepeda said at the door of her Morris Heights apartment.

“Instead of putting out the fire,” she said, the media “added more fuel to the flames.”

Media heavyweights such as CNN, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the New York Daily News and NY1 gave space and airtime to the initial crime. But after the release of the indictment, The New York Times’ City Room Blog posted a 200-word story online stating that the two victims were wrongfully accused, and other media outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Post also ran significantly shorter pieces. None of the stories thus far question how two victims ended up being arrested and jailed.

Defense attorneys involved with the case were not providing any answers. On October 14, Almonte’s lawyer, John O’Connell, said his client may not have been “quite as involved” as he was made out to be. But he did not return calls for further comment after the indictment was unsealed. Four calls made last week to Cepeda’s defense attorney Phil Dussek, were not returned.

Ada Cepeda admits she is most upset that more has not been done to clear her son’s name. But she is too weary to push the issue any further. Her family has gone through enough, she said. She cannot afford to take legal action against the city to compensate for Brian’s time in prison. Ada, who works as a housekeeper in a hotel, missed full days of work during Brian’s October court appearances—wages she cannot afford to sacrifice.

“In the end, you know the city has a lot of money,” Ada Cepeda said. “We leave it to God. God is the one who will give justice.”