A string of nearly two dozen violent robberies in Riverhead Town in the past 18 months mostly targeting Hispanic men, including an attack Monday, has spurred officials to act to revive and expand an anti-bias task force.
On Monday, officers responded to a report of a robbery in progress on Old Country Road in which two men stole $300 from a 25-year-old Hispanic man, police said.
After a foot chase, officers arrested Kenneth Belcher, 46, of Riverhead and charged him with robbery. Bobby Riddick, 46, of Middle Island, turned himself in the next day and was also charged with robbery in the attack, according to police, who said it is unclear whether they were responsible for others.
In April, thieves stole $400 and sneakers from a 33-year-old Hispanic man near the train tracks in downtown Riverhead and left him bloodied, according to a police report.
"His eyes were punched, he had some scratches on his face. It was a bit swollen," said Sister Margaret Smyth, a nun who runs the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to immigrants, and helped two robbery victims pay for medical bills. "He got beat up quite sufficiently."On Oct. 23, Lorenzo Juan, a Guatemalan immigrant, was attacked near the Riverhead train station by two men who fractured his skull with a baseball bat and robbed him of $850. The attack left him in a coma.
"I feel badly" about the attack, Juan, 32, a landscaper who came to the United States four years ago, said recently. "But thank God they didn't kill me."
Doctors had to remove a fragment of his skull due to brain swelling, and replaced it this past spring with a prosthesis, Juan said. Since the attack, he has been living in homeless shelters and with friends.
Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said he believes many of the attacks -- eight robberies this year and roughly 15 last year -- were crimes of opportunity against Hispanic immigrants, whom thieves often target because they are known to carry cash and may be reluctant to contact police. In March and last month, prosecutors charged an ex-Suffolk County police sergeant with hate crimes for allegedly stealing cash from more than 20 Hispanic drivers he pulled over.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter this week urged immigrants to report crimes and said police would not ask them about their immigration status.
"We've done a lot to try to stem this sudden crime issue that we've had this year and last year," said Walter, who met earlier this year about the attacks with Rabbi Steven Moss, chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission. "I'm not satisfied until it goes away, period."
Riverhead Town Board members said Thursday that, in response to the attacks, they want to resurrect the anti-bias task force and have it meet regularly, after several years of inactivity. Riverhead, Babylon and Huntington are the only towns in Suffolk County without an active anti-bias task force, Moss said.
Walter said local police have partnered with Southampton Town and New York State Police since the spring to help solve the robberies. In April, a Spanish-speaking police officer attended Spanish-language Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead and advised congregants to walk in well-lit areas after dark and not carry large amounts of cash, Hegermiller said.
Moss said an anti-bias task force could help stem attacks and other incidents.
He was at a town board meeting Thursday to talk about reviving the task force, which is typically comprised of government and police officials, clergy and others."The important thing here is to support the Hispanic community and let them know they don't have to be seen as vulnerable," Moss said.