Federal authorities confirmed Friday they are monitoring the case of an Islandia man who police said harassed two Muslim women at a Smithtown gas station.
"We're aware of it and we're going to monitor this," said Robert Nardoza, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Benton J. Campbell, referring to the Aug. 20 incident. "At this time it's premature to say that federal charges will be filed."
Nardoza said federal agents would remain in contact with local and state law enforcement as the case against Joseph Ballance, 23, proceeds, to evaluate whether federal charges should be filed.
The same office is also watching unrelated investigations of hate crimes against Latinos in Suffolk. That comes as the county's Hate Crimes Task Force this week began hearings across Suffolk into the source of racial and ethnic tensions.
Ballance, of Winding Lane, was being held on $10,000 cash bail or $30,000 bond at the Suffolk jail Friday. Thursday he pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in First District Court in Central Islip where he was charged with second-degree aggravated harassment. The judge issued an order of protection for the women and ordered Ballance to undergo a mental health screening.
Police said Ballance encountered a mother, 49, and her daughter, 20 - at the Hess gas station at 615 Smithtown Bypass. The women were dressed in abaya, a traditional Muslim garment that covers everything except the eyes, and began threatening them.
"Get in my car so I can . . . chop you up into little pieces and kill you," he said, according to court documents.
Police said he drove his green 1999 Mercury toward them, getting so close to their vehicle one of the women had trouble removing the gas cap. All the while, one victim said, he was "striking a match on a matchbook like if I was to start pumping the gas he would throw the match at me."
Ballance also made derogatory statements about the women, calling their garb Halloween costumes.
Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, who heads the Suffolk Police Hate Crimes Unit, said Ballance drove the car in reverse but didn't get close enough to the woman to be charged with attempted assault, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
But Aliya Latif, civil rights director of the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the charges are insufficient. "Egregious acts such as those allegedly committed that could very easily have resulted in serious injury or death warrant more than a mere misdemeanor charge," she said. "Intimidating members of any religious community through violence is morally reprehensible and deserves the full weight of the law."
Ibrahim Hooper, the group's national spokesman, said anti-Muslim statements on the airwaves and the Internet have helped incite acts of hate across the country. "And so when we see this rising level of anti-Muslim rhetoric, you are always going to have a tiny minority who take this rage and turn it into violence," he said. He added that the reported threat is all the more unsettling since it comes as Muslim celebrate Ramadan, their holy month, which began Aug. 21.