Charges upgraded in hate crime case

November 20, 2008 9:59:14 PM PST
The gang assault killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant by seven high school students was the culmination of a larger marauding spree in which the teenagers tormented other immigrants while armed with knives and BB guns, prosecutors said Thursday. The new information about the case came during a hearing where prosecutors announced upgraded criminal charges against the defendants.

The Nov. 8 killing of Marcelo Lucero has sparked a torrent of outrage from Long Island to South America, with some calling the attack a modern-day lynching.

A funeral for the victim, who worked in a Riverhead dry cleaners store after arriving in the United States 16 years ago, was held in his homeland on Thursday. His gray casket was draped with an Ecuadorean flag, and rose petals were tossed on top. Some in the crowd carried signs saying "No to Racism."

Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell made the new allegations during the arraignment of six of the seven suspects on a spectrum of upgraded grand jury charges, including gang assault, conspiracy, attempted assault, and attempted gang assault. Lawyers for the six entered not guilty pleas.

The seventh defendant, Jeffrey Conroy, who prosecutors say is the one who plunged a knife into Lucero's chest as all seven surrounded the victim, will answer to an upgraded charge of second-degree murder as a hate crime, as well as manslaughter, gang assault and other crimes on Monday. Conroy's lawyer was not available to attend Thursday's arraignment because of a scheduling conflict, court officials said.

Conroy could face 25 years to life in prison and the others could be sentenced to five to 25 years if convicted of the most serious charges. Attorneys for all seven have said their clients are innocent.

The killing has elicited statements of disgust from a variety of advocates for Hispanics and others, who noted it took place only days after Barack Obama was elected as the country's first black president.

"It is tragic that a crime of this nature, a xenophobic lynching, happened just as the United States celebrates a historic step forward in which racial barriers have been overcome," Ecuadorean Ambassador Luis Gallegos said last week. Jose Lopez, Ecuador's consul general to the United States, was among those jammed into a crowded courtroom Thursday to hear the upgraded charges.

Prosecutors said the seven teenagers had been hanging out with friends on a cold autumn Saturday night when someone suggested they go "beaner jumping," a derogatory term they used as a euphemism for attacking Hispanics. The group drove around Patchogue and shortly after 11 a.m., they encountered a Hispanic man and attempted to rough him up, but the man escaped.

Shortly before midnight, the group came upon Lucero and a companion walking near the Patchogue train station. The group surrounded their victims, but Lucero's friend managed to flee the scene unharmed. Lucero tried desperately to fight back, smacking one of the teens with his belt, but the man was soon overwhelmed by the mob, prosecutors said.

Conroy put an end to the skirmish when he plunged a knife into Lucero's chest, authorities say. District Attorney Thomas Spota said the other six were unaware that Conroy had stabbed Lucero until he confided in them as the group fled the scene. The prosecutor said because the teens did not know about the stabbing until afterward, they were not being charged with murder.

In addition to the knife carried by Conroy, two others admitted to police that they were also carrying knives, but never used them during the confrontation. One of the teens, Jordan Dasch, also admitted that he had a BB-gun with him that night, but did not fire it then.

However, much earlier that day, prosecutors say two of the defendants were driving around Patchogue and shot an Hispanic man with the BB-gun, causing minor injuries. Dasch was also charged with criminal mischief for damaging an automobile with the BBs the same day.

Animosity over the influx of thousands of immigrants from Central and South America has been simmering for nearly a decade on Long Island. In 2001, two Mexican laborers were nearly killed by two men who lured them to a warehouse with the promise of work and then beat them with shovels and other landscaping tools. Two years later, a home in Farmingville was destroyed by teenagers who tossed fireworks through a window on the Fourth of July.

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