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Violence

Juan Lopez of Huntington Station was convicted of using the threat of violence to recruit people into the gang MS-13. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

A Huntington Station man has been found guilty of being an MS-13 gang member who used the threat of violence in attempt to recruit new members.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced April 9 that Juan Lopez, 32, was convicted by a jury of first-degree attempted coercion, a felony. Lopez faces a maximum of four years in jail.

“The victims did not join; they did the right thing,” Sini said. “That’s why it’s critical that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is here to protect the victims of not only gang violence, but also of gang intimidation.”

On April 16, 2017, Lopez was approached by two young men at the soccer fields of Manor Field Park in Huntington Station at approximately 1 p.m. in attempts to recruit them to MS-13, according to the district attorney. This occured less than five days after the murder of four young men near a park in Central Islip by alleged gang members.

Tattoos denoting Juan Lopez’s connection to the gang MS-13, according to District Attorney Tim Sini. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

“When the boys resisted, this defendant stated to them in unequivocal terms, ‘this is how you end up dead in the park,’” Sini said. “My message to Mr. Lopez is: That’s how you end up in jail in Suffolk County.”

Lopez was arrested by Suffolk County Police Department the following day, April 17, 2017.

The case was prosecuted by the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Gang Unit. The Gang Unit was launched in January 2018 by the newly-elected district attorney to focus exclusively on investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by gang members, such as members of MS-13.

Sini said prosecutors’s evidence against Lopez at trial included witness statements in addition to his own tattoos. Lopez has a “1” tattoed on his right arm near his shoulder with a matching “3” tattooed on his left arm near the shoulder joint. In addition, he had a skull with two horns tattooed lower on his left arm, forming the letter “M” when viewed upside down. The district attorney said these tattoes are symbolic of membership in the MS-13 gang.

“We will spare no resources, we will spare no effort to eradicate MS-13 from our communities,”he said.

Born in response to tragedy, the organization aims to start conversations about immigration rights, racial divisions, social injustice

Tom Lyon, center, and Gregory Leonard, right, of Building Bridges in Brookhaven with an attendee of the group’s 2017 Martin Luther King Day Jr. event. Photos by Will McKenzie

By Daniel Dunaief

Tom Lyon, Mark Jackett and Susan Perretti, among many others, don’t have all the answers. In fact, they are filled with difficult questions for which the Town of Brookhaven, the state of New York and the country don’t have easy solutions.

That, however, hasn’t stopped them from trying to bring people together in Brookhaven to address everything from social injustice to immigration rights to racial divisions.

Members of Building Bridges in Brookhaven, Lyon, Jackett and Perretti have met regularly since 2015 when the group formed in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Members of the group Building Bridges in Brookhaven share the common purpose of opening up community dialogue. Photos by Will McKenzie

Building Bridges personally connects with people, according to Tehmina Tirmizi, who is the education chair at the Islamic Association of Long Island. Building Bridges members attended an interfaith event at IALI in late 2016, and its members have gathered with others for monthly vigils to support Muslims.

Tirmizi said she appreciates the understanding, solidarity and unity and feels members of Building Bridges are out there for support.

The group meets on the second Monday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. to get together and talk, forge connections, understand differences and encourage peace. They have met at churches throughout the region, as well as at the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Selden.

“The origins were in response to the shootings,” said Jackett, an English teacher at Smithtown High School West. He added continued gun violence is part of what the group is trying to address. “It’s part of the sense of urgency.”

Jackett decried the drumbeat of hatred, negativity and division in the country and in communities on Long Island.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people,” Jackett said.

The gatherings bring together people of different backgrounds, ages, races and sexuality and attract a crowd from a wide cross section of Long Island.

This past year, the organization hosted a celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and a Unityfest at Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach in September. The MLK event drew more than 200 people, while the Unityfest brought almost 300.

The Unityfest enabled Building Bridges to donate $1,600 to support Hobbs farm and highlight its program to supply fresh produce to local food pantries.

Coming in February, the group will host its second annual MLK festival, which moves beyond King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech and embraces his broader approach.

“King talks a lot about the beloved community,” said Lyon, who is also one of the founders of Building Bridges. “That was his ultimate vision for the world and it involves a lot more than [defeating] segregation.”

Lyon said former head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover had an enemies list, as did former President Richard Nixon. For King, his enemies were militarism, racism and materialism.

While BBB formed in response to violence in a church and brought people together through church organizations, it is an interfaith group, Lyon said.

The group encourages people to contribute to, and participate in, other efforts on Long Island as well.

Many of the group members belong to other organizations, according to Jackett. Building Bridges has also been supporting other efforts, which include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and People Power Patchogue, a group dedicated to defending civil rights and creating stronger and safer communities.

Building Bridges has also formed subcommittees on immigration rights and criminal justice reform.

Jackett said efforts to address and combat racism need to be done regardless of who is in office.

“We try our best to do that work and highlight the need,” he said.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people.”

— Mark Jackett

The group has a Facebook page and the group is working on a website too. A mix of retired people and people still in the workforce, the members of Building Bridges have been discussing the architecture for a web page. It is also hoping to forge deeper connections with millennials through Stony Brook University, Suffolk County Community College and a new Artists Action Group in Patchogue.

Perretti, a retired writer who worked as an editor at St. Joseph’s College, suggested that Building Bridges is looking to create a network of people who can respond to various needs.

“We need to build ourselves into a community more and more and when that happens, more people will come,” Perretti said.

The group is also focused on jumping to action during times of crisis.

“This is the opportunity to get to know people who may be the targets of hate or violence and to develop a friendship and alliance with them,” Perretti said. “When something happens to them, it happens to us as well.”

Looking ahead, Perretti said the group has to find ways to attract and encourage involvement from a broader base of community members in 2018.

She said she would like to make room for people who have vastly different views. She encouraged people with different opinions to engage in courageous conversations, without fear of reprisals or attacks.

“It’s nice and fun and easy to be with people we are like, [but] it’s really hard work to talk to people who hold different opinions who may argue with us,” she said.

Members of the Building Bridges community know they face uncertainty with the issues and challenges ahead.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Perretti said, adding that the group’s primary mission is to start conversations about the things happening in the United States.

“This is a community that wants to build and grow,” she said. “We need to hear other people. We’re open to ideas.”

Greenlawn Park was taped off Saturday morning after a dead body with lacerations was discovered at the end of August. File photo by Gabriella Espinoza

Earlier this summer, Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) announced the decision to increase patrol in Huntington with park rangers, who would monitor town parks and improve security, and this past weekend these rangers finished their training.

Starting last Thursday night, Sept. 1, five of the eventual six rangers went through orientation and preparation procedures, and experienced their first nights out on the job.

Huntington Station resident Jim McGoldrick was not able to get a glance of the rangers in work during the weekend, but praised the idea.

“I think it’s a great move on the town,” he said in a phone interview. “Every little bit helps. It’s coming together, and is helping the community.”

A.J. Carter, town spokesperson, said the weekend was a success, in a phone interview: “People were very happy to see them. They were given information from the community; people responded very positively.”

Although their jurisdiction is in town parks, the park rangers can intervene if they see activity on the roads or other areas outside the parks.

The officers are meant to function as peace officers do. According to New York State criminal procedure law, peace officers can make warrantless arrests; use physical force to make an arrest or prevent an escape; carry out warrantless searches with probable cause; and issue appearance tickets. They can also carry firearms and take away weapons from people who do not have the proper licenses to carry.

Carter said all rangers are certified with a firearm, know how to use a defibrillator, administer Narcan and everything else required of a peace officer.

The town spokesperson also said the exact shift times and locations have not yet been decided, as they want the rangers themselves to be able to give input once they have more experience on when and where the best use of their roles would be. Each ranger works part time, and is paid $23.53 an hour. There are expected to be two rangers on patrol per shift — one overseeing the west side of town, and the other the east. Their shifts run from Thursday to Sunday.

The park rangers operate under the supervision of the town’s public safety department.

Joe Rose, director of public safety, also said the community received the rangers very well in the opening weekend.

“Multiple people stopped them throughout their shifts to bring [up] their concerns,” Rose said in a phone interview. “It was rewarding to see the response from the public.”

Rose said an added benefit of park rangers is that it cuts down on time with handling a crime in action. Park rangers are able to act without having to call the Suffolk County Police Department first, and can issue tickets and make arrests on their own.

Huntington has experienced violent crimes in some parks.

On Aug. 20, an 18-year-old’s body was found with lacerations in Greenlawn Park. A man was walking through the town early that morning and discovered the body. In 2013, the body of a young woman was found in the Froehlich Farm Nature Preserve, which borders Huntington Station.

Many other towns on Long Island use systems like this, including Smithtown, which has a park ranger division comprised of “law enforcement personnel” who “enforce town codes, parks rules and regulations, as well as state and federal laws,” according to the Town of Smithtown website.

Carter said the final details of this program will be locked down in the coming weeks.

A man found dead and partially in a roadway early Sunday morning might have been the victim of violence, the Suffolk County Police Department said.

The body was found in that position on West Hills Road in Huntington Station at about 4 a.m. that day. Police responded to the scene, between 7th and 8th avenues.

Police said the victim, 33-year-old William Sarcenolima, who lives in Huntington Station, was pronounced dead at Huntington Hospital. His body was then transported to the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office.

An upcoming autopsy will determine how Sarcenolima died, police said, but detectives from the SCPD’s Homicide Squad are investigating the circumstances surrounding the death.

Anyone with information is asked to call the detectives at 631-852-6392, or to call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 800-220-TIPS.

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Joselo Lucero speaks during a Bethel AME Church program about building bridges during Black History Month. Photo from Tom Lyon

By Tom Lyon

Members of Setauket’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church hosted a community forum last Saturday to conclude Black History Month with a time of reflection about violence and its aftermath.

The event was a follow-up to last June’s memorial gathering held just three days after the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine people, some related to Bethel church members, died in the church’s sanctuary, yet their families spoke out for healing and forgiveness. Actions resulting from the tragedy included the removal of the Confederate battle flag from many public places across the South.

The 80 audience members reflected personally about the main themes of how we can change in response to tragic events and of building bridges throughout our communities to prevent future violence.

A featured speaker was Joselo Lucero, whose brother Marcelo, an Ecuadorean immigrant, was murdered in a Patchogue hate crime six years ago. Joselo Lucero has since become a champion against hate crimes and for tolerance, and has presented programs to thousands of Long Island students. At Bethel AME, he spoke of his family’s loss and how the village of Patchogue now holds an annual vigil in remembrance of the tragedy.

Jennifer Bradshaw, an assistant superintendent in the Smithtown school district, said, “It was so empowering to be surrounded by people dedicated to not just identify societal problems, but to work actively to solve them … to sit down and talk honestly, yet hopefully about building bridges across differences.”

Susan Feretti, of Setauket, said, “The conversation began here today is the beginning of neighbors and groups building bridges … the root of healing both locally and globally. I look forward to what lies ahead.”

Rev. Greg Leonard added that, “Based upon the very positive responses from the audience, and a questionnaire distributed, a task force is being formed to explore ways to hold more ‘building bridges’ events in the future. All community members are invited to join.”

Tom Lyon is a program director at Lift Up Long Island, a group that teaches leadership skills to youth.

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