By Herbert Lowe
Staff Writer, Newsday
October 31, 2005, 7:27 PM EST
Five men went on trial Monday in Queens, accused of a bias attack on a Sikh spiritual leader after an argument over the alleged victim's turban.
Describing "an unprovoked attack that was based on pure hate," prosecutors said the defendants were guilty of a "despicable display of human behavior" against the victim "because he was different."
Rajinder Singh Bammi, 55, was subjected to religious slurs and profanity before he was beaten unconscious outside the Villa Russo catering hall in Richmond Hill on July 11, 2004, prosecutors said.
"It was a truly vicious, despicable act of hate," Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Parke said in her opening statement to Justice Seymour Rotker, who is presiding over a non-jury trial in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens. The defendants are Salvatore Maceli, 27, his brother, Nicholas Maceli, 23, and their stepfather, Victor Consentino, 60, all of Valley Stream; Terence Lyons, 54, of Elmont; and Ryan Meehan, 25, of Woodhaven. They are all charged with second-degree assault as a hate crime, second-degree assault and second-degree harassment. If convicted, each faces up to 15 years in prison.
Bammi is also known by the last name Khalsa, a Sikh honorific reflective of his spiritual leadership.
That afternoon, Bammi and his cousin, Gurcharan Singh, were walking to a nearby restaurant on Lefferts Boulevard when someone within a group of four young people standing near Villa Russo insulted the men. The group, which included Nicholas Maceli and Meehan, was among the nearly 200 people attending a christening affair for Salvatore Maceli's daughter at the catering hall.
"Look, somebody stole my curtains," yelled out one of the defendants, referring to the head dress of two Sikh men, testified Jennifer Murray, one of the other two in the group.
Murray said she didn't know who made the remark. But the fourth group member, Alison Pfluger, testified that it was Meehan who yelled out, "Why did you steal my sheets from my house?"
Bammi and Gurcharan Singh challenged the group and urged it to respect their turbans as being part of their religious practice.
Parke said Salvatore Maceli helped escalate the incident into a full-blown fight when he knocked Bammi down with a single punch. The defendants then punched and kicked Bammi enough that he suffered severe nasal and eye injuries, Parke said.
Defense attorneys concede that the incident ensued from an inappropriate remark. But they contend the Sikh men were solely responsible for escalating the situation into a near melee.
The attorneys said, for example, that even before the first punch was thrown, Gurcharan Singh refused to allow Consentino and Lyons to leave, insisting that the area was a "crime scene" because Singh had called 911. Echoing the other attorneys, Joseph Corozzo said his client, Salvatore Maceli, had no hateful intent when he ran outside to protect his stepfather.
"He was summoned and he was told there was a fight," Corozzo said.