NEW YORK – Allegations that gang members attacked two teens and a man last week because they were gay don't square with the reputation of their Bronx neighborhood, where gay men and women live openly and neighbors are tolerant of homosexuality, residents and city leaders said.
One teen even called the suspects themselves "chill," though she and other neighbors said the gang members often partied and were violent when drinking.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was sickened by the accusations of violence, which police said included sodomizing one man with a plunger handle and hourslong torture of others, "and saddened by the anti-gay bias." The attacks came following a string of teen suicides around the country last month that were attributed to anti-gay bullying.
Eight suspects have been arrested, and a ninth was at large early Sunday. The suspects were awaiting possible arraignment Sunday, the Bronx District Attorney's office said.
Several of the suspects had made statements implicating themselves in the crime, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Asked if the men had expressed remorse, Kelly said, "I wouldn't call it remorse."
Such violent acts "chip away at the tolerance and equality that have always been the pillars of our great city," Bloomberg said. "... New Yorkers have always had an answer to acts of prejudice and intolerance, and that is: We reject them. We renounce them."
Police said the nine members of a gang that called itself the Latin King Goonies heard a rumor that one of their new recruits, a 17-year-old, was gay, and trapped and brutalized the men on Oct. 3-4.
Investigators say the teen was stripped, beaten and sodomized with a plunger handle until he confessed to having had sex with a 30-year-old man who lives a few blocks away.
The group found a second teen they suspected was gay and tortured him, too, police said. Finally, they invited the 30-year-old to the house, telling him they were having a party. When he arrived, they burned, beat and tortured him for hours. The attack included sodomizing him with a miniature baseball bat, police said.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is gay, and other elected officials went to the empty brick townhouse where the attacks took place and passed out leaflets Saturday.
"People were very, very clear that they wanted it to be known that the acts of these individuals do not represent their neighborhood," said Quinn. "They were as stunned as anyone that something so violent, so premeditated ... could happen here."
Gay men and women live openly in the largely Hispanic neighborhood, Morris Heights, and while residents were disturbed by some past violent behavior by the suspects, some said they hadn't previously targeted homosexuals.
The suspects arrested Thursday and Friday were identified as Ildefonzo Mendez, 23; David Rivera, 21; four 17-year-olds, Steven Caraballo, Denis Peitars, Nelson Falu and Bryan Almonte; and Brian Cepeda, 16. All face charges including robbery, assault and unlawful imprisonment as hate crimes; Mendez, Rivera and Falu were additionally charged with committing a criminal sex act.
The eighth suspect, Elmer Confresi, 23, of the Bronx, turned himself in Saturday. A lawyer representing the ninth suspect had arranged for his client to turn himself in, but the suspect never showed, Kelly said.
No one answer a knock at Rivera's door in the Bronx . Telephone numbers could not be found for the other suspects, and it wasn't immediately clear whether they had attorneys.
Bryan Almonte's stepmother, Carmen, told The New York Times that he was hospitalized Friday after going into diabetic shock during his arrest. She said his father died three months ago.
"Bryan is not a bad kid," she told the newspaper. "If he was there, he didn't do anything."
Cepeda was interested in becoming a police officer, said his mother, Ada Cepeda.
"He's not rude; he's quite intelligent," Cepeda told the Times. "I'm a realist. It's not that my son is a saint. But I doubt he would do that."
A gay 16-year-old who lives in the neighborhood said she was friends with all of the suspects.
"They were chill. There was no beef," Natty Martinez said.
"I had no idea they had no heart."
Sitting on the steps of the home where the attacks took place, Martinez and three friends said the accused men had frequently partied in an empty apartment on the block.
The young men were kind and some even went to church, the girls said. But they added that when the group drank heavily, their behavior worsened and they had sometimes beat people.
"How can people do something like that?" asked Keith Handsford, 35, an air conditioning repairman who lives in the neighborhood.
He said he has two gay teenage nieces who live in the neighborhood, who have had no problems with serious harassment.