Just outside his courtyard, AIDS services worker is jumped by a mob of teens
On Saturday night, a mob of up to 15 neighborhood teenagers assaulted a 35-year-old gay man outside the courtyard of his Bronx apartment building, shouting antigay slurs and kicking and punching him in a brutal attack that ended when a neighbor alerted the police. Nelson Torres, an HIV prevention coordinator with the Hispanic AIDS Forum, was taken to North Central Bronx Hospital and treated for a concussion and various injuries to his head, torso and eye.
The police have classified the assault as a hate crime and have arrested four young men, Oscar Bautista, 16, Miguel Melendez, 16, and two 14-year-old boys whose identities were withheld because of their ages.
Steve Reed, a spokesman for the Bronx district attorney’s office, said that the four are charged with assault and aggravated harassment. If convicted of all charges under a hate crime provision, Reed said, the two 16-year-olds face three-year jail terms.
Reed would not comment on the two 14-year-old defendants and added that all four were released to the custody of their parents.
On Monday afternoon, gay and lesbian leaders from across the borough called a press conference and convened a group of fifty gays and lesbians at the site of the attack at 117 East 197th Street in Kingsbridge, a residential neighborhood of weathered two-story private homes and five and six-floor apartment buildings. In a hushed voice, and fighting back sobs, Torres stood before a bank of TV cameras and reporters and said, “I feel happy for all the support,” before his voice faltered. Behind Torres, in the middle of a wide courtyard, activists held up placards that read “We Will Not Be Victims.” Representatives of other community-based groups, including Hombres Latinos de Ambiente and Torres’ employer, the Hispanic AIDS Forum, unfurled banners that demonstrated their queer groups’ identities, by no means a common sight on a mid-afternoon Bronx street tucked away between the Jerome Park Reservoir and the busy commercial strip of Kingsbridge Road.
“I know I have to do this because maybe today somewhere else, somebody else is being beaten,” Torres said, his right eye bloodied and purple knots visible on his head beneath his close-cropped hair. Then, before a crowd grown fairly large, drawn by the site of news cameras and vehicles, Torres addressed his attackers, “No matter what, I wish you the best. I can’t hate anyone.”
Before Torres spoke, the executive director of the Hispanic AIDS Forum gave details about the crime. Heriberto Sanchez Soto said that a crowd of up to 15, possibly 20, including a young woman, had participated in the attack. He said that around 9 p.m., while Torres walked to his building while speaking to his mother on his cell phone, someone tapped him on the shoulder and when Torres turned his head, an assailant “clocked him.” Someone then whistled and summoned a mob from Claflin Avenue around the corner who surrounded Torres, hitting and stomping on him and blocking his escape.
“We will not be victimized by thugs. Today, it was a gay man. Tomorrow, your mother could be raped in an alley. You could be attacked if you’re black or a Jew,” said Sanchez Soto. Lisa Winters, the executive director of the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium, said, “I want the attackers to know we are watching you.” She added, “The Bronx has a burgeoning gay and lesbian community. We live proud and we will fight back.”
On Monday afternoon, during regular school hours, a group of teenage boys stood at the edge of the crowd listening to the press conference. Some said they had witnessed the assault.
Before the press conference had begun, one young man, a 17-year-old who gave his name as Francisco, said that on Saturday night Torres had slapped the face of a 12-year-old boy after someone made a “gay sign.” The 12-year-old summoned his older brothers who came and beat up Torres, Francisco said. Asked what kind of gay sign was made, Francisco made a limp-wristed motion and waved his hand around. “They were just protecting their brother,” he said.
Joseph, 19, who refused to give his last name, said that he witnessed the attack and that the police “arrested the wrong kids.” When asked to explain further, he walked away. Another man who gave his age as 19 said, “I’ll talk, but you have to give me a check. I am not saying anything unless you give me a check.”
Several of the young men acknowledged having gay relatives and classmates. Francisco chuckled and said, “Are you kidding? Half of Kennedy is gay,” referring to the nearby John F. Kennedy High School.
During the press conference, Torres took several questions from reporters. He said that the youths used antigay words in Spanish and English. He hung his head and slowly shook it, as if shocked, when asked if there was any truth to the allegation that he hit a 12-year-old boy.
Reed said that the investigation is ongoing, but would not comment on whether or not others arrests are pending.
Edna Hernandez, a resident of a Claflin Avenue apartment building, said that the neighborhood has many young men who congregate and cause trouble. “Where are their parents?” she asked, adding, “I’m not surprised at all that this happened. These kids hang out in my lobby and smoke and drink. They stand right in front of the door and don’t move.” She pointed to her 9-year-old son standing next to her. “If I take him out, I take him out far from here.”
Reached by telephone on Tuesday afternoon, Torres said that he was uncomfortable discussing the details of the case because an assistant district attorney had asked him to refrain from commenting on it. He said that Tuesday was the first day he had left his apartment building. “When I walked outside it was very frightening,” he said. Asked about his comments on Monday in which he seemed to forgive his assailants, Torres said, “I don’t say I forgive, but I don’t hate.” Torres said that the most ironic aspect of the crime was that his work involves combating homophobia, including helping closeted individuals to accept their sexual orientation in order to decrease their likelihood of engaging in unsafe sex.
He credits a lesbian neighbor for stopping the attack and calling the police.