Long Island Man Targeted Latino Immigrants for Attack, Police Say

A Long Island man was charged with several hate crimes after he picked up Hispanic day laborers at places they were known to gather, drove them to secluded areas and attacked them, the police said Monday.

The string of attacks began early Friday, when the man, Christopher Cella, 19, drove to a spot near a Latino market and restaurant in Farmingville, N.Y., the police said. The market, La Placita, is popular with immigrant men in the area who wait nearby in hopes of landing temporary work.

Mr. Cella picked up a 52-year-old man there, drove him to an abandoned construction site and attacked him, the police said.

Mr. Cella then went to a nearby 7-Eleven store, another informal hiring hub for day laborers, and picked up a 60-year-old man, driving to an apartment complex and attacking him as well, the police said. Mr. Cella placed him in a chokehold from behind and squeezed his neck violently before the man was able to escape, the authorities said.

Early Saturday, the police said, Mr. Cella returned to the 7-Eleven and picked up a 47-year-old man. Once in the car, the man became suspicious of Mr. Cella’s intentions and got out. Mr. Cella tried to run him down, the authorities said.

All three of the victims were Hispanic, the police said, and on Sunday, Mr. Cella, of Selden, N.Y., was arrested and charged with several hate crimes. He was placed on supervised release with GPS monitoring at an arraignment on Monday and is scheduled to return to court on Friday.

In a phone interview on Monday, Mr. Cella denied that the episodes were racially motivated and said that one involved a man toward whom he felt lingering animosity as a result of a painting job they had worked on together.

“It’s not a race thing,” said Mr. Cella, who added that he had merely meant to drive the men to remote locations from which it would be difficult to get home and had not meant to get into physical altercations.

“My intention wasn’t to do anything to hurt them,” he said.

The attacks, he added, were a result of being under the influence of Xanax, a psychiatric drug that is prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders but that the Food and Drug Administration has warned carries a significant risk of abuse and addiction.

In a statement, Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney, described the charges against Mr. Cella as “highly disturbing.”

“The defendant allegedly targeted these victims because of their ethnicity and lured them in under false pretenses before carrying out these violent attacks,” Mr. Sini said.

When he was arrested, court records show, Mr. Cella was free on bail after being charged last month in Brooklyn with two felony weapons counts and several misdemeanors.

He was arrested in that incident after the police encountered him in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and found that he had a loaded, unlicensed 9-millimeter pistol and additional ammunition in a pouch strapped across his chest, records show. He also had Xanax pills with him at the time, court records show.

A lawyer representing Mr. Cella in the Brooklyn case did not respond to a request for comment.

In the interview, Mr. Cella acknowledged that he did not have a license for the gun but insisted that he had simply brought it along as he and some friends traveled to a video shoot. He also said he did not believe the police had probable cause for the search that led to the gun charges.

Both Selden, where Mr. Cella lives, and Farmingville are in the town of Brookhaven, where the median annual income is $70,000 and 28 percent of the 54,000 residents are Hispanic.

Hostility toward immigrants has erupted sporadically over the past two decades in violent and highly publicized incidents in the area, including ones in which the targets were day laborers who had been picked up at the same 7-Eleven in Farmingville.

In 2000, two men posing as contractors promised work to two Latino laborers there, then drove them to an abandoned warehouse and beat them with a crowbar, a shovel and a knife. Three years later, four teenagers were charged with firebombing a Latino family’s home in Farmingville. And in 2005, two men were charged with assault after they shouted ethnic slurs and threw a bottle at a laborer outside the 7-Eleven.

In perhaps the most notorious such episode, a group of teenagers beat and then fatally stabbed an Ecuadorean man, Marcelo Lucero, in 2008, as he was walking in Patchogue, which is also in Brookhaven and where had a dry-cleaning job.

News coverage of the killing drew national attention to the anti-immigrant tensions that had been simmering in the area. One of the teens involved in the killing was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime and sentenced to 25 years in prison; others pleaded guilty to various crimes in connection with the attack.

On Monday, Nadia Marin-Molina, an executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, called the attacks attributed to Mr. Cella a grim flashback to the earlier incidents.

Ms. Marin-Molina urged elected officials to take action to stop such attacks and to address what she said was mistrust among Long Island’s immigrant residents after the policies of President Donald J. Trump, who made the area a focus of his immigrant crackdown and visited after the arrests of MS-13 gang members.

“We are encouraging people who might have any information to come to us or to any community organization,” she said.

Marcelo Lucero’s younger brother, Joselo Lucero, spoke in somber tones upon hearing of the attacks on Monday.

“So many years have passed, but it looks like we’re back in the same place,” he said in Spanish.

At La Placita, where Mr. Cella is accused of picking up his first victim, the mood on Monday was tense among the day laborers who convene there to share meals, the manager, José Flores, said in a phone interview. Most of the workers, he said, are from Mexico.

“A lot of people are talking about it,” Mr. Flores said. “They’re going to be afraid to be picked up, but at the same time, they’ve got to go out and work.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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