NEW YORK – The estate of an Ecuadorean immigrant filed a $40 million civil rights lawsuit Monday that blames police inaction over prior violence for the man's stabbing death during a confrontation with a mob of teens who had made a sport of targeting Hispanics.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against county and municipal governments and numerous officials who work for them.
Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old dry cleaning worker, was walking with a friend near the Patchogue Long Island Rail Road station around midnight in November 2008 when a group of seven teenagers confronted them. During the ensuing brawl, Lucero and his friend were peppered with ethnic slurs and one of the teens fatally stabbed Lucero in the chest.
The killing focused attention on Suffolk County, which has seen an influx of immigrants from Central and South America in the past decade, and prompted a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the way police respond to bias attacks in the community. The Southern Poverty Law Center also has documented repeated attacks on Hispanics there since 2000.
"A lot of these kids felt they were supported by legislators, by law enforcement officers, that what they were doing was really just a joke," said Fernando Mateo, leader of Hispanics Across America and a spokesman for the Lucero family. "It was a joke for these kids. It was play time."
The seven teens were convicted of hate crime-related charges. The teen who actually stabbed Lucero was convicted of manslaughter and was given a 25-year sentence; the others are serving lesser sentences. Most of the seven also admitted participating in prior attacks on Hispanics, including two earlier on the day Lucero was killed.
Mateo said police and political inaction contributed to an atmosphere where the teens felt they could attack immigrants with impunity.
The defendants are Suffolk County and its police department, the town of Brookhaven and its public safety department, the village of Patchogue and its public safety and code enforcement department, and 10 "unknown police officers."
Suffolk County and Patchogue officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Monday. Brookhaven spokesman Jack Krieger said the town "sympathizes with the Lucero family's loss" but that officials had not seen the lawsuit yet and had no immediate comment on it.
The lawsuit notes that as far back as 2000, two Mexican day laborers were nearly beaten to death by a pair of white teenagers in nearby Farmingville. Three years later, teens burned a home inhabited by Hispanics to the ground after tossing fireworks through a window on the Fourth of July.
Advocates also have claimed harsh anti-immigration rhetoric by Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and others created an inflammatory climate.
"When the leaders are engaging in hate language, what do you expect impressionable teenagers to do?" asked Kevin Faga, the attorney for Lucero's estate.
Levy, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor this year, has adamantly rejected those allegations.
"This was a tragic incident that resulted in the swift and lengthy imprisonment of various participants," Levy said in a written statement on Monday. "We are heartened that justice was served."
The county police department has also taken steps, including assigning Spanish-speaking officers to the community, to address criticisms.
"We believe this lawsuit will ultimately shatter the myth that there was knowledge of a pattern of events," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said in a written statement. "Not a single elected official, advocate or media representative reported any kind of pattern prior to this awful event."
Patchogue officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Monday. Brookhaven spokesman Jack Krieger said the town "sympathizes with the Lucero family's loss" but that officials had not seen the lawsuit yet and had no immediate comment on it.
Besides the federal lawsuit, the Lucero estate also has filed a lawsuit in state court against the families of the seven assailants.
Eltman reported from Garden City, N.Y.