Seven teenagers learned Friday that they had been indicted in the fatal stabbing of an Ecuadorean immigrant who police say was targeted because he was Hispanic, but they must wait to hear the specific charges.
The seven have been in custody since shortly after Marcelo Lucero, 37, was stabbed during a confrontation with what a prosecutor called a "lynch mob" near the Patchogue train station shortly before midnight Nov. 8.
The charges are sealed until the seven are arraigned on the indictment in state Supreme Court in Riverhead; no date has been set.
Before the grand jury handed up its indictment, the teens pleaded not guilty to a preliminary charge of gang assault in local district court. Jeffrey Conroy, the 17-year-old high school senior suspected of inflicting the fatal blow, has also been charged with manslaughter as a hate crime. A spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who called the attackers "white supremacists," said Conroy has a swastika tattoo on his leg.
Lucero's killing has sent shockwaves far beyond Suffolk County, where animosity over the influx of thousands of immigrants from Central and South America has been simmering for nearly a decade.
Groups including the National Council of La Raza, Hispanics Across America, Latino Justice and the American Jewish Committee's Long Island Chapter have each issued statements expressing disgust about the killing.
Ecuador's ambassador to the United States on Friday issued a statement lamenting the killing just days after the election of Barack Obama 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," said Ambassador Luis Gallegos.
Jorge Lopez, Ecuador's consul general in New York, met privately on Thursday with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. Although both agreed not to comment on the specifics of the conversation, Lopez had earlier expressed hope that murder charges would be filed.
A spokesman for federal prosecutors said they were monitoring the case for possible civil rights violations, and Gov. David Paterson directed state officials to lend any support possible to help the investigation.
Levy, who as county executive has overseen tough enforcement of immigration laws, apologized for comments earlier this week suggesting the local media had blown Lucero's death out of proportion because of Levy's outspoken views on illegal immigration.
After saying it would be "a one-day story" if it had occurred elsewhere, Levy apologized in a letter published Friday in Newsday.
"It was absolutely the wrong time for me to suggest that coverage of events in Suffolk is treated differently by the media," Levy wrote. "The horrible incident is indeed more than a one-day story. It was a reminder of how far we as a society still have to go."
A wildly popular Democrat who was re-elected last year with 96 percent of the vote, Levy signed a law requiring county contractors to certify that their employees are in the country legally. He also has supported crackdowns on overcrowded housing.
A co-founder of a national group called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform, he has appeared with CNN talk-show host Lou Dobbs, another fierce opponent of illegal immigration.
The Rev. Alan Ramirez, who earlier in the week suggested Levy had "blood on his hands" because of past comments and policies, said the apology was "a good first step" toward reconciliation.
A candlelight vigil was held Friday evening near the spot where Lucero was killed.
A funeral service was scheduled for Saturday at the Congregational Church of Patchogue. Lucero's body was to be flown to Ecuador for burial.
A friend of the teens, who all attend Patchogue-Medford High School, arrived at the courthouse early Friday to offer a different perspective.
"They are the sweetest kids you will ever meet -- they really are," said Brittany Callica. "This is so unfair for them. It's not a hate crime. They're not racist. They hang out with Spanish people, they hang out with black people. They're such good kids, they had such a good future and now look."