Tag Archive | "Bronx Hate Crime"

Bronx Hate Crimes: Hard life, hard time

A warm October light filtered through the leopard print bed sheet tacked above
Photos of Nelson and his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer on his vanity mirror

Photos of Nelson and his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer on his vanity mirror. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

the bedroom window, casting a yellowish tinge on the neatly made bed. Nelson Falu, 18, had not slept in it for over a month. Two movie bills of Scarface hung on the beige wall next to posters of NBA stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and his favorite—Lebron James. A stack of shoeboxes three-feet high peeked out from a sliding closet door left ajar. Strips of photo booth pictures of Falu and his girlfriend were taped to the vanity mirror. More photos of the couple were strewn across two Bibles lying on the dresser, along with sonogram pictures of a baby in utero. A slip of paper with the scribbled phone number hinted at an upcoming appointment Falu had in a midtown Manhattan office. He never had the chance to make it. On the afternoon of Oct. 7, Falu attended a GED preparation class at Bronx Community College. The next night at 11:30 p.m. police officers arrested the stubble-faced teen in front of his home on Hennessy Place between West Burnside Avenue and 179th Street. They booked him in connection with an anti-gay hate crime in the Bronx that made national and international headlines.
1910 Osbourne Place, where the crime occurred. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

1910 Osbourne Place, where the crime occurred. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

The brutal crime, committed amidst a series of anti-gay incidents in and around New York City, caused an uproar in the Bronx gay community and drew sharp criticism from local government officials. On Oct. 3, a group of teens the police claimed were part of a gang called the Latin King Goonies were charged with beating a 17-year-old and an openly gay 30-year-old man with the handle of a plunger and a small wooden baseball bat in a Morris Heights apartment. A second 17-year-old was also assaulted. According to the criminal complaint, Falu attacked one of the victims with a box cutter and said, “You crazy? You lost your mind, you faggot,” before punching the victim in the face. He is also indicted for robbing the apartment of the 30-year-old’s brother. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly vilified Falu and the 10 young suspects calling them “predators” who “employed terrible wolf pack odds,” saying their “crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.” For those who know the 5-foot 10-inch teen, it was difficult to imagine him so out of control. Family members are still reeling from the horrific charges leveled against Falu, who is known to them as “PJ.” They described a decent young man who lived through a peripatetic childhood filled with uncertainty, violence, sadness and a period of time locked up in juvenile detention. He was just beginning to finish his high school education and move into young adulthood when he was arrested. “He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s nice,” said his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer, 17, outside the courtroom in Bronx Supreme Court where Falu was appearing. She has been dating Nelson since June of 2009. “He worries about people too much for him to do something like this.” “He’s a very respectful young man,” said Meema Yao-Lengi, Falu’s GED teacher. “He is very nice, outgoing, and did his work.” When Falu’s aunt heard that her nephew was arrested for the brutal attack, she was shocked and saddened, but not completely surprised. Brenda Ayala, his mother’s sister, said Nelson’s upbringing was so fractured and painful that she
Nelson Falu while at Taberg Resisdetial Center in upstate's Taberg, NY

Nelson Falu while at Taberg Residential Center in upstate's Taberg, NY. Photo courtesy of Caroline Ayala

always feared he would get into terrible trouble one day. “Nelson has issues that need help,” said Ayala, who moved up to New York’s Rockland County from the Bronx over two decades ago. “I always said if you don’t help him now it’s going to be too late and he’s going to end up in jail. “And look where we are now.” Since his arrest on Oct. 8, Falu has been locked up in Riker’s Island, charged with 55 counts of gang assault, assault, robbery and menacing. Some of the charges are being considered hate crimes that carry stiffer penalties. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years for each of the charges and spend much, if not all, of the rest of his life behind bars. His mother, Caroline Ayala, 46, said he has called her everyday from prison, sometimes singing to her and his sisters over a speakerphone. At least once he told her there was no way he could have done what police have accused him of doing. She has grown concerned since his first arraignment on Dec. 1 when he pled not guilty and stopped calling home regularly. Falu is expected to appear again in court for pre-trial hearings set to continue Jan. 4. Falu’s arrest forced him to miss a major event in his life—becoming a father. On Oct. 21, while his mother and sister waited all day to catch a glimpse of him in Bronx Supreme Court, his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer was in labor at Bronx Lebanon Hospital. She later gave birth two months prematurely to their son. The young parents had already decided to name him Ayden. Missing the birth of his son, who is healthy and has doubled in weight to over eight pounds, has been tormenting Falu, who has yet to meet Ayden, now almost 6 weeks old. “He wanted to cry because he couldn’t be there,” his older sister Jasmine Reyes, 26, said. “He wants to be with his son,” his mother said. “He can’t stop thinking about him.” Falu abandoned the GED classes he had begun on Sept. 14 at Bronx Community College’s Future Now program, which targets at-risk out-of-school youth. The program coordinator said he had only attended class six times in his three weeks there. He had attended class enough, though, to make an impression on his teacher. “I was surprised when I heard about what happened,” said Yao-Lengi. “I could not have expected it.” Yao-Lengi said Falu had a good head on his shoulders and always completed his class work. He recalled that he needed the most help with math, and remembered cracking a joke in front of the class about how low Falu wore his pants. After the joke, the teen laughed along with the rest of the class. Another neighbor in his family’s Morris Heights apartment building expressed dismay at the charges. “I’m gay and I live downstairs and I’m cool with him,” said Darcey Ceasar, 31, whose apartment is directly below Falu’s. “I don’t think he would do something like that.” Nelson Falu, like his mother and her 11 siblings, was born in the Bronx. His mother said that his troubled life began as an infant, when his father would not let her hold him out of jealousy. His mother and sister talk about his childhood as a troubled odyssey in and out of numerous foster care homes, removed from his parents by the city’s child welfare agency at the age of four because of abuse by a family member. For the next five years, Nelson shuffled between as many as eight foster homes in Brooklyn—so many his mother and sister could not remember their names. Dawne Mitchell, the Legal Aid attorney who represented Falu in the abuse and neglect case, declined to comment on the details without speaking to Falu because he was a minor. Noting privacy concerns, a spokesperson for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services would not confirm either how many or in which foster care homes Falu lived. Still, Falu’s current attorney, Martin Goldberg, doubted a judge would sympathize with his client’s harsh childhood. He described Nelson as “well-spoken,” “respectful,” and “not a stupid kid.” “The justice system doesn’t care how many foster care homes you’ve been in if you’re charged with a violent crime like this,” Goldberg said. “The purpose of the criminal justice system is to put people in jail.” In 2001, Caroline Ayala won a long fought custody battle with Falu’s father, and her three children were returned to her. But, according to her daughter Jasmine, Nelson’s early removal from his home and the constant array of foster homes had done their damage. “He was not a happy kid,” said Reyes, who described him as closed off, emotionally. “He would cry a lot.” Nelson’s mother said that starting in elementary school, he was always in special education classes because of hyperactivity. His aunt said that he attended anger management sessions as a young teen. “My nephew has suffered throughout his whole life,” his aunt said. “He was a very angry kid, but a good kid.” A good kid whose biggest passion was anything basketball. If he was not out playing in the park nearby their house he was talking about it or at home watching it on television. When he was not on the court, Nelson liked to write poetry, play-wrestle with his three-year-old nephew and sing R&B. “He thinks he can sing,” said his mother in the kitchen of her five-bedroom apartment, which she shares with her two daughters and grandson. “He can’t, but it makes us laugh.” In 2007, Falu’s mother enrolled him in Alfred E. Smith Career and Vocational High School in Melrose because he liked to paint and do carpentry and other “hands-on” things. She said that he was taken into the automotive program at Smith instead of one of the building trade programs and was not happy with it. A few months into his third semester at Smith, when he was 15, his mother and aunt said police arrested Falu on gun charges. His mother said that he was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car with older teenagers, and when cops approached the older kids threw a gun under the car, leaving Falu there alone when the police arrived. Details on the case were not available because he was a minor at the time and the files are sealed. He was still on probation for this crime at the time of his arrest on Oct. 8. Nelson’s mom said her son served 14 months at a juvenile program in upstate New York called the Taberg Residential Center as a result of the weapons arrest.  Richard Hogeboom, director of the program that provides counseling, education, and vocational training, would not release any information confirming Falu’s presence in their program stating it would break confidentiality laws. According to Pat Cantiello in the public information office at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, youth who enter the program usually stay between 12 and 18 months. After finishing his time at Taberg, Falu returned home to the Bronx in February of 2009. He reentered Alfred E. Smith High School in March, only to drop out several months later. On June 8, Falu, then 16, met Jasmine Ferrer through a friend and they started dating. For the remainder of the year, he stayed home and spent a lot of time with his new girlfriend.
Nelson's certificate from Career Connections. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Nelson's certificate from Career Connections. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

In early 2010, Nelson’s mother enrolled him in a program for out-of-school youth at Bronx Community College called Career Connections. As part of the program, Falu took a course on customer service training. On April 28, two months after he learned he would be a father, Falu received a certificate of completion that would allow him to work nationally in customer service. Throughout his teenage years, his mother held firm on her policy that forbid his friends from hanging out in her house, one she has grown to regret since his recent arrest. It meant she had no idea who he was befriending. “He always chooses the wrong people to hang out with,” Caroline Ayala lamented, seated below a wall clock in her kitchen stuck at 6:45. “I should have asked who he was hanging with because maybe this would have never happened. I should have asked more questions.” Acutely aware of his impending baby, Falu was beginning to look for a job and take his life more seriously. Mark Bodrick, the coordinator of the Future Now program at Bronx Community College, said that while he did not come as often as they asked, he appeared to care about his work and had questions about class assignments when he showed up. On the evening of Sept. 21, just one week after starting the program, Falu and another teen were arrested for assault and harassment, both misdemeanors, for allegedly beating another teen in Morris Heights on Phelan Street. A judge released Falu after his arraignment on Sept. 22 and the case is still open. Before his arrest on Oct. 8, Falu attended class six times out of a possible 15. He signed the class roster for the final time at 2 p.m. on Oct. 7, four days after the hate crime and about 30 hours before his second arrest in just over two weeks. At some point during Falu’s time at Future Now, Bodrick remembered talking with him about becoming a father. As was his normal practice with teens in Falu’s situation, he said he probably gave him a flier containing information about programs around the city that helped teenage fathers cope with the responsibility of parenthood. Bodrick never officially referred him to any of the programs, though. Falu pursued that on his own.
Nelson's bedroom. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Nelson's bedroom. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

A slip of paper on top of the Bibles in Nelson’s room contained the information of a Montaigne Massac, coordinator of a program at the non-profit Friends of Island Academy called Fathers Moving Forward, a program that helps young fathers build the skills they need to support their child through job readiness and GED training. He said he remembered speaking to Nelson directly and had him in his system as having an appointment sometime in early October. “It sounds to me like he was trying to receive any help he could,” Massac said. “Young men at that age need a lot of guidance. Unfortunately, sometimes they know the wrong people.” Those closest to Falu would say Massac was right.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special ReportsComments (4)

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.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Crime, Hate Crimes, Multimedia, Special ReportsComments (0)

Bronx Hate Crimes: Free but not free

Two of the four teens cleared of charges in the October anti-gay crime spoke to the BronxInk.
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

The two Morris Heights teenagers had been free from jail for two days, cleared of all charges against them in a brutal, anti-gay attack in early October against three Bronx men. The city had released Brian Cepeda, 16, and Steven Caraballo, 17, along with two others for lack of evidence. Still, they flanked opposite walls of the second-floor hallway inside a Morris Heights apartment, reluctant to leave the refuge of their building that October 28 afternoon. More than two weeks earlier on October 9, the two had stood accused along with seven other Bronx young men of such a heinous crime, the police called them “predators,” part of a “wolf pack,” a gang called the Latin King Goonies. Prosecutors charged all of them with robbery, gang assault and unlawful imprisonment as a hate crime, which carried stiffer penalties. The world outside still felt hostile to the boys. They were free but not free. “Outside we are in danger,” Cepeda said. “People outside think we were the ones who did those things, but it truly wasn’t us.” The teens knew their lives would be forever altered, still subject to the suspicions of those who didn’t believe in their innocence, and to possible threats from rival gangs who may believe they were part of the Goonies gang. Caraballo said they want a chance to live a “normal life” by clearing their names. “I would like to tell them to put up a public notice that we are innocent,” Cepeda said in Spanish, referring to the New York Police Department. “On the streets, people think we are involved with that gang.” Caraballo, originally from Puerto Rico, said that before he was arrested from his home he had not heard about the neighborhood gang. “I don’t go around asking, ‘What gang are you with?’” added Cepeda, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic two and a half years ago. Caraballo’s lawyer said the only way to clear their names would be if the police commissioner and mayor issued a public apology. “The assistant district attorney evaluated all of the evidence, and as she said, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with those horrible crimes,” said defense attorney Paul Horowitz. “She did the right thing by releasing him.” Police claimed that on the early morning of Sunday, October 3, a 17-year-old boy was beaten and sodomized with a wooden stick in an apartment at 1910 Osborne Place. Later that night, another 17-year-old boy was also beaten and forced to participate in brutalizing a 30-year-old man. The two teens were targeted by the gang for allegedly having sexual relations with the 30-year-old who was known in the neighborhood to be gay. The older man was lured to the apartment at about 8:30 p.m. for what he believed would be a party. Caraballo and Cepeda told the Bronx Ink.org they were invited to the party as well that Sunday. When they arrived at Osborne Place around 8 p.m., several men pushed them into a separate room along with Denis Peitars, 17 and Bryan Almonte, 16 – all four were the youngest men at the party, all four were eventually cleared of charges. The boys knew some of the men from other neighborhood parties, but according to Cepeda, the two groups were never really friends. He said they heard men outside the room talking about what they were going to do to the victims, but didn’t think they were serious. “They put us in there, and they didn’t tell us anything of what was happening,” said Caraballo, claiming that they were also victims. “I thought it was all just joking around.” Caraballo said all four boys were let out of the room by the older men at around 9:30 p.m. and told to go home. At a later interview in Caraballo’s apartment, his mother, Mary Kramer, said the gang's alleged ringleader held a gun to her son’s head and forced him to hit one of the 17-year-olds. According to court documents, Caraballo hit the young man in the face with a closed fist. “How the hell are they going to say Steven Caraballo is a monster?" said Kramer, who added that the police said her son was being taken in only for questioning on the day he was arrested.  "What about the others?” Cepeda said he believed they were arrested because people in the neighborhood saw them go into the house for what they thought was a party. Caraballo said the teens couldn't do anything to stop the assaults once they left. Kramer said her son did not see the sexual acts committed against the two men who were sodomized. The Bronx district attorney's office declined to comment on details of Caraballo’s release because the case is still pending against the other seven men involved. Two more Bronx men were arrested after the initial arrests on Oct. 9. "After a thorough investigation, there was not sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," said Theresa Gottlieb, Assistant District Attorney. Now, Caraballo and Cepeda want nothing more than to return to their lives without being linked to such crimes, or becoming part of a gang war. “I know my mom will die if something happens to me,” said Cepeda. His mom, Ada, said she lost 12 pounds in the three weeks her son was in jail. When The Bronx Ink visited Cepeda’s son for a follow up interview on Saturday, Oct. 30, she did not want to rehash the past month, nor did she want her son to say anymore. Holding the door halfway open a little after 1 p.m., she said Brian was sleeping. Cepeda was now traumatized, she said, adding that she wanted to take him to a psychologist because no one should have to go to jail if they are innocent. Caraballo and Cepeda do have a small support group in their neighborhood. On Oct. 28, five residents climbing up and down the stairs in their Morris Heights apartment welcomed them back. The aunt of another suspect who was recently released stopped to hug both men. “Sometimes things you don’t want happen,” said Rosa Hernandez, Bryan Almonte’s aunt. She advised the boys to rely on God to move forward. “This is the first and last time,” Cepeda confidently assured her. The 10th grader at Bronx International High School was supposed to return to school the next Monday. His mother, who works as a hotel housekeeper, said Cepeda needs to regain his routine for the sake of his 12-year-old sister, who does not know her brother was in jail. Even after returning to school, finding common ground with other students will be difficult for Cepeda. He said his true friends are in the Dominican Republic. Before joining his mother in the Bronx, he lived with his father who works as a tailor in Santo Domingo. Although Cepeda visited him last summer, his father’s advice resonates after his experience in a small jail cell eating “bread and sugar.” “I shouldn’t forget that in education there is a future for everyone,” Cepeda said of his father’s words, and added he now understands. He has learned key life lessons from this experience, he said leaning on the wall with his hands down in front of him. “A friend is one that makes you cry, not one that makes you laugh,” Cepeda said reflecting on his choice of friends. “Because there are friends that make you laugh for bad reasons, and there are friends that make you cry because they tell you the truth.” On that Thursday afternoon, Caraballo, the quieter one of the two, agreed with Cepeda that good friends are hard to find. He too has choices to make about his future. His father, Jose Caraballo, said some have advised him to take his 17-year-old son out of New York City, because “he said this is an ugly case.” “We’ve got to see how the situation is going to go,” said Caraballo’s mother about the outcome of the charges held against the seven other men. “If they get out most likely I’m going to send him somewhere else. I’m not going to have him here with them.” Caraballo said he is waiting for things to clear before sending his son back to complete a GED program. His son wants to become a motorcycle mechanic, something he dabbled in before he and the rest of his family joined his father in the Bronx. “I know a lot, but I want to continue learning more,” Caraballo said that Thursday afternoon of his plans to go to trade school after completing the GED program. Caraballo said he has until February to get a job and an apartment. That is because his 15-year-old girlfriend, Genesis, is six months pregnant and expecting a boy.  The “G” tattooed between his thumb and index finger is for her. Caraballo wants to make sure he gives his son the life his own parents wanted for him. His family moved from Caguas, Puerto Rico in search of more opportunities, and now his father is the superintendent of the gated building where he lives. Caraballo said he knows his parents were right about not going out too much. One party turned out to be one too many. Additional reporting by Amara Grautski.

Posted in Crime, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special ReportsComments (1)

A fifth term for Diaz

Senator Diaz was out of the office on election day. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Diaz was out of the office on election day. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Bronx voters proved the power of incumbency on Tuesday, re-electing the Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr., an outspoken opponent of gay rights, to serve a fifth consecutive term as state senator. The veteran Democrat's re-election by an overwhelming majority comes amidst violent attacks on New York’s gay community and a public outcry against anti-gay hate crimes, the most brutal of which occurred in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx on Oct. 3. Diaz took the 32nd District by an overwhelming 94 percent margin over his opponent, Michael Walters — a slight dip from his 99 percent victory in 2008, but a sign that voters cared more about party loyalty than Diaz’s anti-gay stance. That’s a contrast to Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, who was vilified for his statements about gays during his campaign, words that may have hurt him in the race against Democrat Andrew Cuomo, which he lost by a 27 percent margin. Yet Diaz’s controversial stance on gay issues did not appear to present a similar hurdle to his quest for another two years in office. Of dozens of Bronx voters interviewed Tuesday, many distanced themselves from his extreme beliefs, yet voted for him nonetheless. “Everybody has the right to choose who they want to love and spend their life with,” said Darlene Cruz, 53, of Soundview. “I don’t really care for Diaz, but I voted Democrat down the line.” The wave of recent hostility against the gay community included the Oct. 3 hate crime, in which members of the Latin King Goonies allegedly tortured three Bronx men they suspected of being gay; the beating of two gay men at Julius Bar, New York’s oldest gay bar; and an attack on a gay man at the historic Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riots largely credited with starting the modern gay rights movement. These incidents came after the highly publicized suicides of five gay teens across the country, among them Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22. Diaz, who is a Pentecostal minister at the Christian Community Neighborhood Church on Longfellow Avenue, has 17 siblings, two of whom are gay. He released a statement days after suspects were arrested in the Bronx hate crime, condemning the attack but not the bias that motivated it. The omission sparked outrage from the gay community, which blamed the attack, in part, on Diaz’s own rhetoric. Diaz’s office declined to respond to several requests for an interview. In the past, Diaz, the father of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., has called homosexuality an “abomination” and likened it to bestiality. He has also been the face of the opposition to same-sex marriage in the State Senate, blocking a May 2009 bill sponsored by Gov. David Paterson that would have legalized gay marriage in New York. If Bronx residents were dismayed by the senator’s remarks, however, it did not change their vote. “He’s entitled to his beliefs,” said Parkchester resident Lloyd Mitchell, 65. “I might not agree with everything he does, but I’ll still vote for him because he’s a Democrat.” Diaz has long benefited from wide support from senior citizens because of his role as chair of the Senate Aging Committee. His campaign this year focused on blocking tax cuts in order to balance the budget. Such work has struck a chord with Bronx voters, who did not seem to share the widespread dissatisfaction with incumbents that has surfaced in other parts of the country. “He does a lot for the community, especially the seniors,” said Marilyn Villanueva, 37, of Castle Hill. Seventy-eight-year old Antonia Rosado affirmed that sentiment: “He’s one of ours,” she said, adding, “He’s been here a long time so he has experience.” It may be Diaz’s connection to an older and more conservative constituency that has kept him in office. The most recent poll of New Yorkers on the legalization of same-sex marriage, from May 2009, showed a wide gap between support within younger and older generations. According to the Quinnipiac University poll, only 37 percent of New Yorkers older than 55 favor legalization, compared with 61 percent of those younger than 34. “He has a certain amount of Latino voters that are older and tend to be more conservative on social issues,” said West Farms resident James Goodridge, 50. “As long as he has them, he’s not going anywhere soon.” Last Tuesday, a rally outside Bronx Supreme Court gathered community activists who voiced their concern over the Morris Heights anti-gay hate crime. While there, they used bullhorns to vehemently denounce Diaz’s outspoken opposition to gay rights. But a week later, the polls revealed that his stance was not a factor in voters’ decision to keep him in office. While his positions on gay issues are controversial in light of recent incidents, they are not shocking to the voters who have come to know him. “He’s a Pentecostal preacher who doesn’t agree with gay marriage,” said Adam King, 36, of Throgs Neck. “For the gay community to fight about it only increases his defensiveness. The more they protest and criticize him, the more he wants to dig in.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Election 2010, Politics, Special ReportsComments (0)

One suspect in the gruesome gay-bashing crime becomes teen father

Family members comforted each other while waiting outside the courtroom on Thursday. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Family and friends of suspects in the hate crime waited hours in Bronx Supreme Court for a glimpse of their loved ones. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Attorneys for eight of the suspects in the Morris Heights, anti-gay hate crime won more delays in court on Thursday, enough time for one of the youngest defendants, Nelson Falu, to become a father while he waited to make his court appearance in handcuffs. Falu, 17, is one of 11 accused in the Oct. 3rd violent gay-bashing case that has captured the city's attention. Falu's 17-year-old girlfriend went into labor on Wednesday night and by Thursday afternoon, she gave birth to a premature, 4-pound boy, Ayden, while her boyfriend made his third court appearance since his arrest on Oct. 9. “He is happy to be a father, but mad that he can’t be there with her,” said Falu’s mother, Caroline Ayala. Along with family and friends of the other suspects, Ayala and her daughter waited outside the courtroom for five hours on Thursday, only for defense attorneys to ask for more time to talk to their clients before they appear in court again on Friday and Monday. A grand jury has begun its investigation, which promises to be lengthy due to the severity of the crime and the number of of suspects arrested. Attorneys on Thursday waived their clients’ rights to walk on current charges and reserved their rights to testify in trial. In buying time, defense attorneys hoped that the grand jury might reduce some of the charges. By Oct. 28, the jury is expected to  vote for or against indictment. “People might just get charged for their role that night,” said Jason Foy, the attorney for 21-year-old David Rivera, outside of the courtroom. “I’d rather them get specific charges, so we’ll let them go ahead with their investigation and see where it goes.” As it stands, the suspects, ranging in age from 16 to 26 are charged with gang assault, sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment, robbery, and other offenses, all as hate crimes, which carry a more severe penalty. Police said the suspects beat and sodomized a 30-year-old openly gay Bronx man and two 17-year-old boys at 1910 Osborne Place on Oct. 3. The teenage victims were alleged members of the Latin King Goonies, the same gang as the suspects, who accused the teens of having sex with the man known in the neighborhood as “La Reina,” or queen. All of the suspects are now locked up in jail or juvenile detention, except for Ruddy Vargas, 22. Vargas is the only defendant in the case who turned himself into cops and is out on bail. Surrounded by his friends and family outside the courtroom after his appearance, Vargas said, “Only me and god know what happened.” One of the attorneys, John O’Connell, had been prepared to make a bail argument for 16-year-old suspect Brian Almonte, until unexpected legal issues got in his way. In asking the judge for more time with his client, O’Connell said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had put a detainer on Almonte and that he risked being deported. “I don’t know why,” O’Connell said outside the courtroom, adding, “he has a valid green card.” Aside from asserting the innocence of the suspects, family members and attorneys gathered outside the courtroom questioned why the District Attorney’s office was not investigating the 30-year-old victim, who they claim was having sex with boys as young as 16. “I don’t understand why the DA isn’t looking into this man having sex with underage children, and why no one is mentioning that,” said Sanders Denis, the attorney for 23-year-old Idelfonso Mendez. Denis told reporters outside the courtroom that Mendez, who has been painted as the ringleader of the attacks, had known the 30-year-old man for six years and was once friends with him. According to the criminal complaint against him, Mendez kicked and punched the man, then inserted a wooden stick into his rectum, asking him, “Are you a faggot? Do you like this?” Speaking to people outside the courtroom, Denis hinted at things to come. “As this progresses,” he said of his client’s case, “you will hear more facts and the truth will come back. There is more there that people don’t know about.”

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Dancing in Defiance

Dressed in a "BAAD" sweatshirt and black track pants, the fiery 47-year-old director of the Barretto Street Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance welcomed the audience to the October 16 dance performance with a strip show. Arthur Aviles whipped off his sweatshirt to reveal a spaghetti-strapped tank top. Then he peeled off his pants and bent over, so the audience could read "BAAD Ass Woman" on his ladies-style tight red underwear. All items were for sale, later, after the show. To anyone who hadn't read about the recent anti-gay assault in the Bronx, this wild display would seem normal for the academy, which caters to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. "We’re scared and we don’t want to be in fear," said Aviles later, who is openly gay. "So we turn fear into defiance."
James Atkinson, Khiara Bridges and Edgar Peterson performing at BAAD! Photo: Connie Preti

Artists performing at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

Over a week ago in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, police said 11 members of the Latin King Goonies, a local gang, carried out what officials have called the most gruesome hate crime in recent memory. Using a baseball bat and a plunger, the alleged attackers sodomized two 17-year-old boys and a 30-year-old man they suspected of being gay, beating them for hours and later robbing and beating the older man's brother in his home. Despite the notoriety of this attack and a wave of other anti-gay traumatic events, including the beating of a man in the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and the suicide of a gay Rutgers student, the performances on Saturday night seemed, if anything, emboldened. The first dance was set to a song by the flamboyant pop star Adam Lambert, and many of the subsequent male performers were dressed in brightly colored, transparent tights and underwear. Shizu Homma, who performed a solo act, modified her planned performance after the attack by starting out in drag, instead of her usual t-shirt and pants, eventually stripping down to rags and writhing on the floor. Her jarring movements reflected the pain of the victims, but also screamed resilience and perseverance. "Our community is fierce," said Aviles. "It knows how to stand up to craziness like that, to the macho attitudes of the world." As other gay advocacy groups are organizing rallies and political officials are condemning the attack, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance is taking a more active approach. On November 7, BAAD will host a self-defense class in conjunction with the Center for Anti-Violence Education. If there is a high turnout, the class will be held on a regular basis, said Carlo Quispe, 32, the dance academy's program manager.
Carlo Quispe is the program manager at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

Carlo Quispe is the program manager at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

"It's really the only thing we can do," said Quispe. "People can continue to grandstand and get on their soapbox. What we want to provide is something more concrete, powerful, tangible. Something people can teach their friends." Aviles wishes there were a way to teach tolerance to the people who prey on them. "I want to see these guys learn something that can change their view about how they see humanity," Aviles said, referring to the suspects. "Jail is certainly not it." Other members of the gay community weren't quite as sympathetic. "They should be in solitary confinement, away from society," said Ruben Thomas, 44, a gay videographer who volunteers at BAAD. Yet Aviles believes that jail will only punish them, rather than help them to unlearn the intolerance that led them to commit their horrific crime. "Call me Ann Frank, but I really believe that all people are good at heart," he said. "And in this case, I really do feel that these guys can learn something. But I don't think our legal system will allow us to come together in that way."

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