It happened one night on a whim, after a few alcoholic drinks and a dark quest to find excitement by preying on Hispanics.
A group of seven teenagers from Patchogue, a Long Island middle-class suburb, went out on what they called “beaner-hunting.”
The result, in November of 2008, was the death of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, who was 37 and just weeks away from a planned return to his homeland when he was stabbed by one of the youths.
The youths, who were convicted of hate crimes and received jail sentences, told a judge they targeted Hispanics for kicks, confident that their victims wouldn't call police because they feared questions about their immigration status or that their complaints would be disregarded.
But the events that conspired in the fatal encounter between Lucero and his killer, Jeffrey Conroy, who was 17 at the time, really took hold in the local public high school and around dinner tables, said Mirta Ojito, author of “Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town,” a new book on the killing and the village of Patchogue.
Immigrant students at the Patchogue-Medford High School routinely suffered harassment by other students – they were pushed, mocked in the halls, hit with food in the cafeteria – but did so in silence.
It was a silent agony, she found, that permeated the immigrant community in the village, fueled by an indifference by many police officers to reports of being singled out for attacks, or a fear of deportation.
“Immigrants weren’t saying anything to people who could make it stop,” said Ojito, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times reporter who now teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “They didn’t tell the police, and when they did, then police would say ‘What do you want me to do? They’re teenagers. Just go home.’”
Conroy, Ojito said, had his disciplinary issues at school, but had nothing to indicate he might someday end up in jail for killing someone. Conroy was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“He was very involved in sports, he was not the kind of kid who would seem [capable] of killing a person,” Ojito said.
Conroy didn’t seem to fully comprehend the consequences he faced for fatally stabbing Lucero, Ojito said. At the police station, while answering questions about the stabbing, her research found, Conroy asked the detective if the attack would somehow affect his high school wrestling season.
One of the seven youths was half Puerto Rican, and Conroy had a Bolivian girlfriend – not what many people would expect to find in people who would set out to target Latinos.
But, Ojito said in her book, hate crimes often take place at the hands of people who do in groups what they would not do alone, and who dehumanize a population although they may be friends with individuals from that community.
“Much was made of that,” Ojito said of Conroy having a long-time Bolivian girlfriend. “Frankly, we assign humanity to the people we know and not to people we don’t know. You see that with racial and sexual orientation issues. People are friends with someone who is gay, but they may not like gay people as a whole or agree with gay marriage.”
Conroy saw his girlfriend differently, Ojito said, than he saw Lucero and many others in the village’s growing immigrant community – an anonymous mass of people who threatened the familiar feel of Patchague.
“It was possible for him to relate to her because they knew each other,” Ojito said, “she spoke his language, she was not an ‘alien.’”
In her book, Ojito wrote: “In Patchogue, Marcelo Lucero thought he had found a home, albeit a temporary one, but to the town he was always a stranger, a foreigner, an invisible other. Only in death did they learn his name. Only in death were they forced to see him.”
Ojito traveled to Ecuador, where she met Lucero’s mother and sister, who were living in a home built from hard-earned money he sent back to them.
“It was especially sad because he was ready to go back,” Ojito said. “He had sent all his money to build the house – and it was built with everything that he had wanted, from the tile on the floor and the wood on the kitchen cabinets. They were living in it.”
The Lucero family set up annual scholarships for students of the high school in Patchogue.
What loomed large during her interviews and research for the book?
“One of the things I relearned is that words matter,” Ojito said. “What you say around the table at breakfast time or dinner time has an impact” on how people are perceived.
Ojito also was surprised to learn that hate crimes targeting Latinos were more pervasive in the country that what she believed.
“There’s not one state that has not had hate crimes against Hispanics,” she said.
Lucero’s killing led to soul-searching in Patchogue, and by most accounts the relationship between the police department and immigrants has improved dramatically.
A U.S. Justice Department probe found that the Suffolk County Police Department didn't properly investigate hate crimes in which the victims were Hispanic, in part because they were not reported by the community.
That has led to changes ranging from improved communication with the Hispanic community to a requirement that at least 10 percent of every new police class is made up of Spanish speakers.
Recommendations from the Justice Department included making it easier for people to register complaints about the police by placing notices in libraries and other public places, better community outreach and improved communication to beat officers. The letter also cited some confusion over interpreting what a hate crime is, noting that minors are capable of committing them.
Two weeks after Lucero's death, Patchogue village officials started a series of bilingual public meetings in the library, between police and migrant workers, on how to ease the worries in the Hispanic community and improve relations.
Lucero's brother, Joselo, said his loved one must not be forgotten.
"If we do not remember what happened, people forget," he said, "and unfortunately return sometimes to the same way of treating our people."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.