NEW YORK – Authorities opened a homicide investigation Tuesday into a vicious attack on an Ecuadorean immigrant whose assailants shouted anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs then beat him with a bat and kicked him.
Jose Sucuzhanay was attacked as he walked arm-in-arm with his 38-year-old brother early Sunday in Brooklyn. He had been listed in critical condition after undergoing brain surgery at Elmhurst Hospital.
Family members held a news conference at midday Tuesday outside the Queens hospital to say he was clinging to life and the family had to make an important decision about what to do. A law enforcement official, however, told The Associated Press that Sucuzhanay had been declared brain dead and was taken off life support Tuesday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The three assailants were still being sought.
The attack came less than three weeks after seven Long Island teenagers were charged in the fatal stabbing of another immigrant from Ecuador. Prosecutors said the defendants had been hanging out with friends when someone suggested they go find a Hispanic person to attack.
While it appears both men were not targeted specifically for being Ecuadorean, members of the Latin American community say they feel vulnerable and must be vigilant about safety.
After the Nov. 8 stabbing death of Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, Long Island, about two dozen people organized to raise awareness on the issue, said Jose Cuji, who lives in Blue Point, near Patchogue, and runs his own business laying hardwood floors.
Cuji acknowledges that Ecuadoreans are not specific targets because of their nationality, but suggested some are targeted because they look and sound like Hispanic workers. "They weren't attacked because they're Ecuadoreans. I have Ecuadorean friends who got attacked because they're Hispanics," he said.
"We came here to work. And most Ecuadoreans are legal. But people confuse them with illegal migrant workers."
Police in New York said Tuesday that the two brothers first attended a church party and then stopped by a bar. They may have been a bit tipsy as they leaned on one another for support walking home. Jose wore a tank top, Romel a T-shirt with a jacket tied over his shoulders despite the cold weather. Arm-in-arm, they paused at a street corner where a red or maroon sport utility vehicle was at a stop light, police said.
Witnesses nearby said they heard the men in the car shouting anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs at the men. One attacker jumped out of the SUV and smashed a beer bottle over Jose Sucuzhanay's head. As Romel Sucuzhanay ran away, three other men exited the vehicle and joined the assault, police said. One hit Jose Sucuzhanay in the head with an aluminum baseball bat while the others kicked him, police said.
At some point, the brother returned holding a cell phone and told the men he had called police. The attackers drove off. Romel Sucuzhanay escaped uninjured.
Police said there was no robbery or other apparent motive. The office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and the New York Police Department's Hate Crime Task Force were investigating. They urged the public to help identify the attackers.
The NYPD is offering a $22,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspects.
Cuji said Ecuadoreans in New York are now forced to take measures to protect members of their community — "and to educate people."
"Right now, we're trying to help educate the community, to go into the schools and churches and teach people that we've got to respect life. We've got to educate people to care about life — instead of us going out to try to fight the other guys. Education is the main thing. We don't want to fight."
Tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans live in the New York metropolitan area, but estimates vary because some are illegal. The largest community is in Patchogue, on Long Island. Other communities are in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, Queens' Jackson Heights and in parts of New Jersey close to New York City.
After the recent attacks, "I think Ecuadoreans in New York are being hyper-vigilant," said Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance in Amityville.