Last week the Broward County Sheriffs Office said it would not investigate the beating death of a Fort Lauderdale man as a hate crime, prompting outrage from gay rights activists. Craig Cohen was 47 years old and openly gay. He was walking home from a local diner in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale last April when he was attacked by a group of men. He was pushed to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the head until his skull was crushed. Cohen spent the next six months in a brain damaged coma and died Oct. 7th never having regained consciousness.
Cohen was not the only person attacked on April 6th. A few minutes later and less than two miles away, 27 year old David Villanova was beaten and robbed by the same men. He survived his attack. He is also openly gay.
Two suspects were arrested in May in connection with the crimes, and a third, just 18 years old was arrested last week, charged with robbery and murder. The Broward County Sheriffs Office determined that the attacks on Cohen and Villanova were crimes of opportunity fueled by a hard night of partying and a desire to kick some ass."
But Cohens friends say they dont buy that and neither does Scott Hall, founder and president of Gay American Heroes, a foundation that honors the victims of hate crimes and also seeks to educate the public about a problem that Hall says claims an LGBTQ life every nine days. Hall said he commends Broward County Sheriff Al Lambertis ongoing support of the gay community, but believes the motive behind Cohens murder was hate, not robbery. Because the most typical things thieves would steal were still on Cohens body when he arrived at the hospital; wallet, credit cards, cash and a watch, Hall said the only thing they stole from Craig was his life and the only thing that was actually missing were his car keys. So for them to classify it as robbery is doing an injustice to the community and to us as a county.
Commander Rick Wierzbicki is with the Broward Sheriffs Office and is Chief of the Hate Crimes/Anti Bias Task Force. When asked why Cohens valuables werent stolen if robbery was the motive, Wierzbicki said it wasnt from the suspects lack of trying. He said several eyewitnesses testified that the men tried to get at Cohens wallet but got spooked by oncoming headlights when the traffic light changed and were forced to leave the scene.
Wierzbicki said his department actually began the investigation as a hate crime. Sheriff Lamberti spoke out at the opening of the Stonewall Library, and we knew two of the victims were gay. We had composites drawn and within two hours, had them delivered to gay friendly businesses in Oakland Park, Wilton Manners and Fort Lauderdale. But as the investigation went on we knew it was, unfortunately, just an extremely violent attack," he said. Wierzbicki said the suspects would have had to have made specific statements or there had to be concrete evidence that the victims were attacked because they were gay and he said there was absolutely no evidence to that point and added its a tragic situation but thats where the facts are."
Scott Hall says the Sheriffs Dept. needs to be pressured to reevaluate the case, saying, if they were to find an African American hanging from the end of a rope anywhere in the U.S. they would consider that a hate crime. And he added that with the hundreds of different LGBTQ murders hes researched this is so evident of the brutality of the crime that it should alone give it precedent to say that its a hate crime.
Cmdr. Wierzbicki believes the hate crime statute is pretty well defined by the legislature. He said the problem is gathering the evidence, You have to have specific evidence that the crime was directed at one of the special categories and in this case theres just no evidence it was a very brutal and violent crime but unfortunately hate was not involved.
Now that Cohen has died, Wierzbicki said the charges against 21 yr. old Victor Gonzalez, 25 yr. old Pargu Leandro and 18 yr. old Chad Olah will be the stiffest that can be levied, with or without a hate crime classification, that of 1st degree murder.
If there is a positive side to this tragedy it is the fund that Cohens friends have established in his name. It aims to help the other victims in crimes such as this the pets who are left behind. At the time of the attack Cohen shared his life with a dog named Eddie and 5 indoor cats, who Scott Hall said might have had to be euthanized, were it not for the Craig Cohen Animal Advocacy Project.
The CCAAP is part of The Pet Project which helps people living with HIV/AIDS keep their pets by providing care and support. Although still a developing initiative, the CCAAP found caring homes for all of Cohens cats and Eddie was adopted by a neighbor. To learn more about The Craig Cohen Animal Advocacy Project check out www.petprojectforpets.org. For information about the Gay American Heroes Foundation visit www.gayamericanheroes.info