By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
If you saw Daniel Romano on the street today, you might think, hey, average young guygood-looking and a little stylish, maybe, but not remarkable. Yet this average young guy from Middle Village, Queens, has never been one for blending in, at least not before January 9, when he says two local teenagers got out of a car and beat him with a metal pipe and an ice scraper for being an avowed Satanist in an Italian Catholic neighborhood.
Gone are the blue hair and black nail polish, though he still wears a black fedora and an inverted crucifix. On a recent Tuesday, with his hair newly shaved, Romano, 20, blended in with the kids who waved and called out, "Hey, Danny!" at the corner of 72nd Street and 60th Avenue. That's where the incident Queens prosecutors are calling a hate crime took place.
Today, the only visible reminder of the alleged attackor, as the defense lawyers are arguing, a classic fight over a bad debtis the red scar behind Romano's left ear. Romano says he can't easily forget how the teens harassed and then jumped him. And he won't forget, he says, how they pummeled him so hard he needed 12 stitches to his head.
"Not for nothing I got whacked in my head," he says, taking in the scene of modest houses and tidy lawns. "Now I look over my shoulder more."
So do the accused, it seems. County attorneys asked a grand jury to indict Paul Rotondi and Frank Scarpinito not just with assault, but with violating the state hate crime act, which protects religious expression. On February 22, the grand jury did just thatmaking this the first time the law has likely been used to protect a Satanist. The friends now face up to 15 years in jail.
On March 3, Rotondi and Scarpinito, boyish-looking 18-year-olds, went back to Queens Supreme Court, accompanied by their parents. They stood in silence before the bench, their hands clasped, their heads bowed, as the judge read the four-count indictmentsecond-degree assault as a hate crime, assault, weapons possession, and aggravated harassment. They pled not guilty and left shielding their faces with coats. One parent shouted at the small press scrum, "Don't take pictures of my son!"
The Queens case has captured attention far beyond New York, generating buzz on Satanic message boards, Christian websites, political chat rooms. This is partly because of its novelty; as one posting on a "culture wars" listserv reads: "You can't help but laugh at the Exorcist-meets-Sopranos feel of the story, right?" But it's also because of the ongoing debate over whether hate crime laws are needed and, if so, when they should be used.
"This is a fight among kids that's been blown way out of proportion," says Richard Leff, who represents Scarpinito. Sean McNicholas, Rotondi's lawyer, doesn't necessarily reject extending New York's hate crime statute to a Satanist"just like any Jew, Christian, or Muslim," he explainsif the incident in question has to do with religion.
"We're not saying, 'Oh, this guy's a Satan worshipper and that's bullshit,' " he adds. "We're saying, 'This is not a hate crime because the assault stemmed from a dispute over money, not faith.' "
Gene O'Donnell, who teaches police and law studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that on the one hand, the case shows how prosecutors put the squeeze on defendants. Notes O'Donnell, a former prosecutor, "You create tremendous risk for a defendant if you can boost the level of crime."
On the other hand, New York's law is meant to send a message that the justice system won't tolerate victimizing people because of prejudice. And Rotondi and Scarpinito have given Queens district attorney Richard Brown plenty of evidence, O'Donnell points out. According to the D.A.'s office, the teens had taunted Romano for weeks, spreading rumors and calling him a "Satan worshipper," a "baby sacrificer," and a "hooker killer." Prosecutors charge that just before the alleged assault, the two yelled out, "Hey, Satan!"
That Romano's case is a hard sell to the general public may serve only to prove the D.A. right in seeking a hate crime indictment. "I'm sure legislators would turn in their graves if they realized this statute is being used to protect a Satanist," the professor observes. "It's these unpopular religious groups swimming upstream in a culture of belief who will test the legislation's limits."
Sitting at his family's kitchen table, Romano seems more interested in hanging out with the neighborhood pals who ring his cell phone or chatting online with fellow Satanists than in discussing the merits of hate crime laws. And when he talks about the case, he focuses less on its political implications than on its more personal consequencesthe way he's gotten noticed by folks who never paid him much mind before, for instance.
As his story became fodder for tabloid news, strangers would stop him on the street, some to ask if he was OK. "Hey, you're that Satanist!" others would say, or, "Whoa, you're that guy in the news!"
Press accounts took on a mocking tone portraying him as a whiner and a sissy, smearing him as a "flamboyant dresser" and "blue-haired, Satan-loving man." A handsome kid, something like John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever, he wears trendy black and has a widow's peak. That's about as diabolical as it gets.