CARLTON, N.Y. – Five teenagers accused of disrupting a religious service at a small-town mosque were hit with extra misdemeanor charges Monday, but a prosecutor said he was holding off classifying their acts as a hate crime.
Two 17-year-old boys and three 18-year-olds yelled obscenities and honked car horns outside a mosque in the Lake Ontario town of Carlton, in western New York, during two nights of drive-by harassment in late August, authorities said. One teen was accused of firing a shotgun.
The teens, from nearby Holley, initially were charged with disrupting a religious service. They were charged in Carlton Town Court on Monday night with first-degree harassment, another misdemeanor.
In addition, 18-year-old Dylan Phillips, who was accused of sideswiping a worshipper with his vehicle, was charged with third-degree assault, leaving the scene of a personal injury incident and various traffic violations.
Phillips pleaded not guilty. Three other teens had their cases adjourned until they could retain lawyers and were ordered to stay away from the mosque.
The fifth teen, 17-year-old Mark Vendetti, was charged Aug. 31 with felony criminal possession of a weapon. He was accused of twice firing a shotgun into the ground during a confrontation outside the mosque the night before. He told police he fired the gun because he was afraid mosque members might go after him, prosecutors said. He was freed a few days later on $10,000 bail.
A congregation member, David Bell, said he ran out of the mosque when he heard the disruption during evening prayers for Ramadan on Aug. 30 and was sideswiped by one of two vehicles in which the teens were riding. He said he suffered cuts and bruises on his hip and mouth.
Under New York law, a hate crime is an enhancement of other designated charges, such as harassment. But Orleans County District Attorney Joseph Cardone said members of the mosque "have predominantly said to me that they'd like to see us hold off on doing that."
"Until we get a clear understanding of what it is that motivated these young people and have a clear understanding from the members of the mosque how they want us to proceed with this, we're holding off on giving these crimes that designation," Cardone said.
The World Sufi Foundation mosque is the only Islamic place of worship in Orleans County, a predominantly rural county midway between Rochester and Buffalo with around 44,000 residents. It practices a form of Islam that emphasizes prayer, meditation and simple living.
One of the 100-member group's imams, Bilal Huzair, said mosque members would prefer "nothing extreme" to happen.
"This has to be a just punishment," he said outside court. "Upon looking at what had happened and after time has expired, we don't think the boys had any intent of making a hate crime. They were shouting anti-Muslim obscenities. However, it was a one-time deal."