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A year since Lucero hate killing, effects linger

People light candles and attend a vigil for

People light candles and attend a vigil for Marcelo Lucero who was killed at this location in Patchogue, N.Y. one year ago. Credit: John Dunn

Suffolk County Police Officer Thomas Hannafey strolls down Main Street in downtown Patchogue, into and out of restaurants and pawnshops, Ecuadorean cash-wiring stores and Dominican bodegas.

Hannafey, 40, is bilingual since his days as a beat cop in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan and a familiar face, the owners happy to greet him.

"Todo bien?" Hannafey says walking into Express Amazonas, an Ecuadorean shipping company run by Angel Zhicay.

"Todo bien," Zhicay, 45, responds.

Sunday marks a year since the night authorities say seven teenagers attacked Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, a hate killing whose effects are still felt across this South Shore village, the county and beyond.

Shortly after Lucero's death, police added a second foot-patrol officer in Patchogue, and Officer Lola Quesada was assigned as the special assistant to the police commissioner for Hispanic affairs.

Since then, business owners and residents say the gangs of bicycle-riding teenagers who once terrorized the area are gone. Ecuadoreans have organized themselves, and officials and community members have made more of an effort to reach out to the Latino community.

"Now we are comfortable living here," said Zhicay. "The police have fixed a lot of the troubles here. Not everything, but they do clean it up."

Effects, tensions still felt

Still, many say the underlying tensions sparked by divergent opinions on immigration remain. Latinos without transportation still fear walking alone at night.

"What I don't see are people who have different feelings about immigration, I don't see an engagement, a dialogue, between those people," said Jean M. Kaleda, coordinator of Spanish language outreach services at the Patchogue-Medford Library. "And in order for us to really move forward in a sustainable way, I think we need that."

As a community struggles to move forward, lives continue, forever altered.

The brother of the victim finds himself thrust into the spotlight, but feeling more alone than ever.

A mother visits her son in jail and holds steadfast to the belief he is innocent.

And a mayor wonders what went horribly wrong? And will it all ever be fixed?

"It's been a tough year," said Mayor Paul Pontieri. "This happened in my community and I didn't know about it. This is a community I believe in. The one community you grew up in and the one you never expected it to happen in. And it did."

Hispanics still attacked

Police say there have been 11 anti-Hispanic hate crimes reported in Suffolk this year from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 - five in the Fifth Precinct encompassing Patchogue and surrounding areas. That compares with six countywide last year.

"We are acutely sensitive when a Spanish-sounding name is attached to an incident," said Inspector Aristides Mojica, who was transferred to head the Fifth Precinct after the Lucero killing. "We're not making those assumptions, that it's not a hate crime. We try not to get complacent regardless of how far in the past the Lucero homicide goes."

The most serious attack occurred in August in Patchogue when an Ecuadorean man was attacked by three men yelling ethnic slurs at him just steps from where Lucero was killed.

"One is too many," said Kaleda.

Advocates have long criticized Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and some Suffolk lawmakers for their hard-line stance against illegal immigrants. But Levy said making a link between opinions on illegal immigration and hate crimes is wrong. "It's just divisive to keep suggesting that the only place hate crimes exist are here in Suffolk County because there's been a debate here on the issue of illegal immigration," he said. "They happen everywhere."

Still, Levy's administration has come under scrutiny as the U.S. Justice Department has launched a federal probe into how Suffolk police have handled reports of crimes against Latinos. That investigation, begun in October, is likely to take at least a year.

Certainly there are many in the community who believe illegal immigration is at the root of the problems.

At the Medford Shooting range, a 50-year-old employee who said he is known as Charlie Range - and declined to give his real last name - said that until the immigration challenge is solved on the federal level, the Patchogue-Medford community will remain divided. "I see resentment that I have a house and I pay X amount of dollars in taxes every year, yet the 15 people in the house next door, they aren't paying anything," he said.

Divided on pervasiveness

At Patchogue-Medford High School, many want to move on, saying the Lucero killing was not indicative of a pervasive problem in the community.

"I only see good here, I don't see any bad," Maureen Kawko, president of the Patchogue-Medford High School PTSA. "That was seven students out of 2,950. So it really is not a reflection at all of what our district or our student body is. We live in a diverse community and I feel that it's always been very harmonious."

But not everyone shares that feeling.

Norma Cardenas, 41, has a son in 10th grade. Cardenas is so disturbed by reports of racist comments that she wants to move back to South America.

Her son said it's common for students to call him or other Latinos "beaners" or "border jumpers."

"I tell them I'm Ecuadorean, I was born here," he said in an interview. "They don't care, they still say it."

On Friday, speaking to high school students from across the county at the Congress for Justice, a daylong conference on tolerance, Levy made some of his strongest remarks to date condemning the attack.

"There were a number of peers to those people charged within the school who knew that this type of [behavior] was going on for weeks prior," Levy said. "And do you know what the shame was? The utter disgrace - not one of those young people told a parent, or told a school authority or told police; they looked the other way."

Confronting the violence

In the weeks after Lucero's death, a group of Ecuadoreans - most from Lucero's hometown of Gualaceo - began meeting. Soon they formed Fundacion Lucero de America, renting space on the second floor of the Village Mall on Main Street. County police attend every weekly meeting to hear community concerns.

Two weeks ago, a woman from the library passed out fliers to foundation members about the village's planned meeting with the Latino community. A week later most of the 50 or so people who attended were from the Lucero Foundation.

"A year ago, Marcelo Lucero was killed," Pontieri told them. "If what happened last year helps us understand where we have to go then out of the tragedy hopefully comes a light that helps us move forward."

During the meeting, a foundation member slipped Pontieri a letter that detailed a complaint about a lack of courtesy from a code enforcement officer. "They felt I would take care of the problem they had without making a big deal out of it at a public meeting," Pontieri said. "That made me feel good. It showed there's a level of trust there."

Also at the meeting, Marcelo Lucero's younger brother, Joselo, stood to say community residents were concerned that immigration officials had identified themselves as police in an early morning raid.

Pain, fear linger

Marcelo Lucero's death has left his brother on center stage, pulled in different directions and courted from all corners.

"Lo siento," - I'm sorry - says a teary-eyed woman to Joselo Lucero, grasping his hand outside of The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, where he was speaking. The younger Lucero was among a group who spoke about diversity at a recent ceremony there.

But even with the constant attention from the media and elected officials, in many ways Lucero says he feels alone. A disagreement with some Fundacion Lucero de America members over how to organize the vigil marking the anniversary of his brother's death left Lucero breaking from the group. He planned the vigil on his own.

"I'm fighting for the rights of the community," he said. "Any change that comes, it's not for me, it's for the community. For me, it's too late. My brother is gone."

For the victims of earlier attacks, there is still fear. Hector Sierra, 55, is a Colombian native who authorities say was attacked by the same group of teens charged with Lucero's killing about 20 minutes earlier. "Every time I step out, it's psychologically hard," he said. "Every time I step out, I recall that moment."

Sierra believes it was the luckiest day of his life. He crawled to a nearby residence and the teens left.

Now, when Sierra finishes his shift as a waiter, he waits an hour for a ride home or hails a cab, still afraid to walk the six blocks home.

With Joie Tyrrell

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