November 1, 2017 at 10:30 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Suspects plead not guilty to Nov. 2016 anti-LGBT assault
Jessie K. Liu, gay news, Washington Blade, hate-motivated aggravated assault

U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu provided details on an anti-LGBT assault.

Three male suspects pled not guilty in D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday to a charge of hate-motivated aggravated assault for a November 2016 incident in which police say the suspects repeatedly punched and kicked a male victim in the head outside a carryout pizzeria near two gay bars.

A police charging document says the assault, in which the victim was knocked unconscious and taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, took place after one of the attackers stated, “I don’t like them gay motherfuckers.”

In the nearly one year since the incident took place neither D.C. police nor an LGBT police advisory committee called the Violence Prevention and Response Team, or VPART, publicly disclosed to the community that the attack occurred.

The Washington Blade learned about the incident at an Oct. 25 community meeting organized by the D.C. Office of the United States Attorney in which newly appointed U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu mentioned that the attack was one of three currently pending hate crimes cases being prosecuted by her office.

At the Washington Blade’s request, aides to Liu provided the Blade with details of the case, including the names of the men charged in the attack, all of which are part of the public record.

The police charging document says the attack took place about 4 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, at the northeast corner of 8th Street and Florida Avenue, N.W. in front of Jumbo Slice pizzeria, which is located next door to the gay nightclub Town Danceboutique and one block from the gay sports bar Nellie’s.

Both clubs close at 3 a.m. on weekends, and the charging document doesn’t say where the victim had been immediately prior to the attack.

According to the charging document, at least four witnesses observed the attack and gave police a description of the attackers. After broadcasting a lookout based on descriptions provided by the witnesses, police located the suspects a few blocks away and placed them under arrest when one of the witnesses positively identified them, the charging document says.

Court records identify the suspects, now listed as defendants, as Derrick Diggs, 28, of Clinton, Md.; Francisco Flores, 22, of Arlington, Va.; and Juan Vanegas, 27, of Alexandria, Va. Police charged all three with aggravated assault—hate/bias related based on the victim’s status or “perceived” status as an LGBT person.

Court records show the three were released on their own recognizance a short time after their arrest while awaiting trial. For reasons unclear in the public court records, a delay in the case that exceeded a deadline under the city’s “speedy trial” law resulted in the charges against the men being dismissed without prejudice on Oct. 5, 2017.

The court records show that two weeks later, on Oct. 17, the case was reopened and at the request of prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a Superior Court Grand Jury indicted the three men on the same charge that had been dismissed – “aggravated assault-knowingly” along with the classification as a hate crime.

The indictment states the “criminal act demonstrated the prejudice” of the three defendants “based on the actual or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression” of the victim.

The charging documents identify the victim by a male name but don’t say whether he identifies as gay or transgender. The Blade has a policy of not identifying crime victims without their permission to do so. The victim couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

During Tuesday’s court arraignment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bianca Forde, the lead prosecutor in the case, disclosed that her office extended a plea bargain offer to the three defendants, who had yet to respond to the offer. She did not disclose the terms of the plea offer.

Defense attorney Charles Murdter, who represents defendant Flores, said he and the attorneys representing the other two defendants would have no immediate comment.

The charging document was filed in court at the time of the three defendants’ arrest last November. It says the incident started when the victim overheard one of the suspects make the anti-gay comment inside Jumbo Slice pizzeria and asked him what he said.

The charging document says one of the men involved in the attack, who’s listed as Suspect 3, replied by saying “you have five seconds to get out of here.” It says Defendant 3 then pushed the victim, causing a scuffle that spilled outside onto the sidewalk.

“Witness 1 stated once all parties were outside Defendant 1, Defendant 2, and Defendant 3 were all striking Victim 1 in the head, which caused him to fall to the ground,” the charging document says.

“Witness 1 continued on to say once Victim 1 was on the ground Defendant 3 got on top of him and continued to punch him in the head. Witness 1 also stated that Defendant 1 and Defendant 2 stomped Victim 1 in the face several times while he was on the ground,” the document says.

The document says a similar account was given to police by three other witnesses. It says that when police arrived on the scene the victim was unconscious and bleeding from the head. It says that when a police detective visited the victim in the hospital at around 9 a.m. on the same day the victim was awaiting results of a CT Scan test and “had no recollection of how he got there or where he was; he thought he was in Maryland.”

Superior Court Judge Marisa J. Demeo, who’s presiding over the case, renewed an earlier court order prohibiting the three defendants from coming into contact with the victim or in any way attempting to communicate with him, including on social media. She scheduled a follow-up status hearing for the case on Nov. 21.

When the LGBT VPART committee was created by former D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier members were told that information provided to the panel had to remain confidential and could not be publicly released. In past years some VPART members, including D.C. LGBT Center director David Mariner, objected to the confidentiality requirement, saying that the LGBT community should be informed of anti-LGBT hate crimes or other crimes targeting LGBT people disclosed by police to VPART as long as sensitive information relating to ongoing investigations remained confidential.

All reported crimes that occur in the city as well as arrests made by police are part of the city’s and the court system’s public record. Police have said that although they routinely announce the occurrence of serious crimes such as homicides through news releases, they don’t routinely announce instances of less serious crimes such as assaults unless contacted by members of the media about a specific incident.

A statement on the D.C. government website says Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, currently oversees VPART, which meets monthly at the LGBTQ Affairs Office.

“The mission of the Violence Prevention & Response Team (VPART) is to address, reduce and prevent crime within and against the LGBT community in the District of Columbia,” the statement says. “We achieve this by creating a strong partnership between the community and the government which enables us to focus on coordinating a community response to violence,” it says.

“Through this partnership, we are able to effectively respond to instances of violence, create awareness and educate the community about violent crimes and available resources, leverage resources to provide training, and work to improve and enhance response to crimes,” it says.

In response to an inquiry by the Blade earlier this year Alexander-Reid said she didn’t have the authority to disclose specific instances of anti-LGBT crimes that police disclose to VPART, saying police would have to disclose that information as they deem appropriate.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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