A Long Island man has been charged with several hate crimes after he picked up Hispanic day laborers from places they were known to congregate, led them to isolated areas and attacked them, police said Monday.
The series of attacks began early Friday, when the man, Christopher Cella, 19, visited a location near a Latin market and restaurant in Farmingville, NY, police said. The market, La Placita, is popular with immigrant men from the area who wait nearby in hopes of finding temporary work.
Mr Cella picked up a 52-year-old man there, drove him to an abandoned construction site and attacked him, police said.
Mr Cella then went to a nearby 7-Eleven store, another informal hiring center for day laborers, and picked up a 60-year-old man, drove him to an apartment complex and l ‘also attacked, police said. Mr Cella placed him in a choke from behind and squeezed his neck violently before the man could escape, authorities said.
Early Saturday, police said, Mr Cella returned to 7-Eleven and picked up a 47-year-old man. Once in the car, the man distrusted Mr. Cella’s intentions and got out. Mr Cella attempted to topple him, authorities said.
All three victims were Hispanic, police said, and on Sunday Mr. Cella, of Selden, NY, was arrested and charged with several hate crimes. He was placed on probation with GPS monitoring on arraignment on Monday and is expected to return to court on Friday.
In a phone interview on Monday, Mr Cella denied that the episodes were racially motivated and said one involved a man he felt lingering animosity towards as a result of a paint job they had worked on together .
“It is not a question of race,” said Mr Cella, who added that he had simply intended to lead the men to remote places where it would be difficult to return home and n had not intended to engage in physical altercations.
âMy intention was not to do anything to harm them,â he said.
The attacks, he added, were the result of being under the influence of Xanax, a psychiatric drug prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders, but which the Food and Drug Administration says carries a significant risk of abuse and addiction.
In a statement, Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County District Attorney, called the charges against Mr Cella “very disturbing”.
“The accused allegedly targeted these victims because of their ethnicity and lured them under false pretenses before carrying out these violent attacks,” Sini said.
When he was arrested, according to court records, Mr Cella was on bail after being charged last month in Brooklyn with two counts of firearms and several misdemeanors.
He was arrested in this incident after police encountered him in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and discovered he had a loaded and unlicensed 9mm pistol and additional ammunition in a pocket strapped to his chest , according to records. He also had Xanax pills with him at the time, according to court records.
A lawyer representing Mr. Cella in the Brooklyn case did not respond to a request for comment.
During the interview, Mr Cella admitted that he did not have a license for the gun, but insisted he just brought it as he and friends were on their way. to a video shoot. He also said he did not believe the police had a probable cause for the search which led to the gun charges.
Selden, where Mr. Cella lives, and Farmingville are in the town of Brookhaven, where the median annual income is $ 70,000 and 28% of the 54,000 residents are Hispanic.
Hostility towards immigrants has erupted sporadically over the past two decades in violent and high-profile incidents in the region, including those in which the targets were day laborers who had been picked up at the same 7-Eleven in Farmingville.
In 2000, two men posing as contractors promised work to two Latino workers there, then led them to an abandoned warehouse and beat them with a crowbar, shovel and knife. Three years later, four teenagers were charged with setting fire to the home of a Latino family in Farmingville. And in 2005, two men were charged with assault after yelling ethnic names and throwing a bottle at a worker outside 7-Eleven.
In perhaps the most notorious episode, a group of teenagers beat and then fatally stabbed an Ecuadorian man, Marcelo Lucero, in 2008 while he was walking through Patchogue, which is also in Brookhaven and where he had a dry cleaning job.
Media coverage of the murder drew national attention to the anti-immigrant tensions that were brewing in the region. One of the teens involved in the murder was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime and sentenced to 25 years in prison; others pleaded guilty to various crimes in connection with the attack.
On Monday, Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, called the attacks attributed to Mr. Cella a grim flashback to previous incidents.
Marin-Molina urged elected officials to take action to end such attacks and address what she called mistrust among immigrant residents of Long Island after the policies of President Donald J. Trump, who has made the region the center of its repression of immigrants and visited after the arrests of members of the MS-13 gang.
âWe encourage people who might have information to come see us or any community organization,â she said.
Marcelo Lucero’s younger brother, Joselo Lucero, spoke darkly upon hearing of Monday’s attacks.
âSo many years have passed, but it looks like we’re back to the same place,â he said in Spanish.
In La Placita, where Mr. Cella is accused of having picked up his first victim, the atmosphere was tense Monday among the day laborers who meet there to share meals, said the manager, JosÃ© Flores, in an interview. telephone. Most of the workers, he said, are from Mexico.
“A lot of people are talking about it,” Flores said. “They are going to be afraid of being picked up, but at the same time they have to go out and work.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.