Seven high school students looking "to beat up some Mexicans" attacked an immigrant from Ecuador on a street, with one of them fatally plunging a knife into the man's chest during the brawl, police said.
The killing set off a tirade of reactions from supporters of Hispanic immigrants and led a prosecutor to compare the episode to a lynching. The attack was officially labeled a hate crime by Suffolk County authorities, and some suggested that advocates of recent crackdowns on illegal immigration fomented an atmosphere of intolerance that contributed to the attack.
"Today, some of the highest leaders of our community also have blood on their hands," said the Rev. Alan Ramirez, a longtime advocate for Hispanic day laborers and Latino immigrants. "I have said for a long time that it would only take time for something like this to happen."
The dead man was identified as Marcello Lucero, a 37-year old immigrant who worked at a dry cleaners shop in Riverhead. A friend of the victim said Lucero moved to the United States 16 years ago.
The teenagers -- one junior and six seniors at Patchogue-Medford High School -- were arraigned Monday on gang assault charges and entered not guilty pleas. The teen believed to be the one wielding the knife, 17-year-old Jeffrey Conroy, was also charged with manslaughter as a hate crime. His attorney did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
Police and prosecutors say the teens -- six of them white and one Hispanic -- were hanging out in a park on Saturday night around midnight when someone suggested they go "beat up some Mexicans." The group spotted Lucero and another man near the Patchogue train station and "like a lynch mob, (Conroy) and his friends got out of their car and surrounded Mr. Lucero and his friend," Assistant District Attorney Nancy Clifford said at Conroy's arraignment.
Lucero was punched in the face, and attempted to swing his belt while his companion escaped. At some point during the confrontation, Lucero was fatally stabbed in the chest and the teenagers fled. Patrol officers who had reported seeing the teens walking around Patchogue quickly arrested the group nearby.
Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said detectives have some evidence the group may have been involved in earlier, less lethal, attacks and urged any victims to come forward. He made particular note that the immigration status of victims would not be an issue in any investigation.
Additionally, the U.S. Attorney's office said it is monitoring the case.
At least one of the teens has a record. Christopher Overton, 16, pleaded guilty to burglary in another fatal attack in 2007 in which a 38-year-old East Patchogue man was shot during a home robbery. His attorney denied his client was guilty of the current charge and said Overton cooperated with prosecutors on the previous case and is awaiting sentencing.
Tensions over illegal immigration have been particularly acute in Suffolk County, where tens of thousands of immigrants have moved in recent years and become a large part of the work force in fields like construction, landscaping and restaurants. The hamlet of Farmingville, about 10 miles from where the attack occurred, has become a flashpoint in the national immigration debate after a series of violent attacks on Hispanics.
In 2000, two Mexican men were beaten by two locals in Farmingville who promised them work. On July 4, 2003, a Mexican family barely escaped with their lives after teens set their Farmingville house ablaze by shooting fireworks through a window.
Two years later, two Mexican immigrants fishing off a Long Island jetty were set upon by a group of four white youths who beat them and stole their money while using racial and ethnic slurs.
Ramirez and Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, suggested that various legislative remedies to the immigration controversy, as well as comments by elected officials, may have contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance.
The county has enacted a local law requiring companies with government contracts to verify their employees are in the U.S. legally. According to a U.S. Census Bureau breakdown of Long Island's population, Hispanics comprised 12.4 percent of Nassau County residents in 2007 and 13.3 percent in Suffolk County.
"For too long, anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment has been tolerated in Suffolk County, as reflected in the introduction of anti-immigrant bill after anti-immigrant bill in the county legislature," Valenzuela said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a co-founder of a national group called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform, rejected suggestions that the killing was related in any way to the immigration debate.
"The beating, stabbing and killing of Marcello Lucero wasn't a question of any county policy or legislation; it was a question of bad people doing horrific things," said Levy.
Gov. David Paterson said in a statement that Lucero's death "is a jarring reminder that we must remain vigilant and continue our fight to eradicate prejudice in our words and in our actions."