By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Still, Romano's beliefs have colored much of his adolescent life. His introduction to the atheist-oriented Church of Satan came at the rebellious age of 14. Raised in a strict Lutheran household, Romano attended services every Sunday with his mother, Debbie. One Sunday, as he halfheartedly listened to the sermon, he heard the preacher mention the Satanic Bible, the fundamental text of the Church of Satan.
The allusion prompted Romano to venture to the Queens Public Library, where he checked out the book. He discovered its author, Anton LaVey, and the modern-day Satanic church, which eschews the Judeo-Christian notion of God. Contrary to what he'd heard in the sermon, he found that Satanists do not worship the devil. Instead, they believe in the power of the individual, and see Satan as a metaphor for self-determination (see sidebar).
When Romano flipped through the book, he says, "I saw myself in it." By 16, he'd read it several times and was applying its tenets to his life. He identifies as a LaVeyan Satanist, or an "atheist auto-deist," to family, friends, anyone who might ask about his religion. Says Damon Castro, 24, who has known Romano for 18 years, "Danny doesn't walk down the street saying, 'I'm a Satanist,' but he's not shy about stating his beliefs."
His candor has never helped him in the close-knit, fairly homogeneous world of Middle Village. As his friends tell it, many of the local kids judged him without getting to know him. Forget that he's a likable young man with a penchant for telling funny jokes and a talent for music. People hear the word "Satanism," and it's all over.
"Most kids around here are scared of Danny," says Mike Gonzalez, 18, a close friend from nearby Maspeth. They say he licks human blood, conjures up evil hexes, and sacrifices pets. "His reputation is distorted," Gonzalez adds. "Danny is a cool guy, but people just don't get him."
These days, he's even misunderstood by those who share his faith. When the local tabloids called the Church of Satan's high priest, Peter Gilmore, he denied Romano has any affiliation with the church. Romano insists he never claimed to be a card-carrying Satanist, as reported. But the news has drawn the ire of those with bona fide credentials. Posting on Letters to the Devil, the Church of Satan message board, Svengali, a church reverend from Florida, wrote: "It is especially offensive to me that he would drag the Church of Satan into [this case] under false pretenses."
Next came criticism on generic Satanic message boards, pegging Romano as a "pussy, wannabe Satanist," a poseur who "got him his deserved ass whooping." Many of these Satanists have denounced Romano for assuming the victim roleafter all, the theology goes, a real Satanist would have been smart enough to handle the street.
Romano has learned to shrug it off. "I wasn't really a victim," he says. Although he does say he got jumped, he hasn't played the patsy. On the contrary, he reported the crime and is pursuing justice. He picks up the Satanic Bible and reads: "A Satanist practices the motto 'If a man smite thee on the cheek, smash him on the other!' Let no wrong go unredressed." He offers, "I know my shit. I know the tenets of the Satanic Bible and I am following them."
If Romano is bothered by the disdain, he doesn't show it. "I personally don't need to be part of a group to know I'm a Satanist," he says. Occasionally he shares rituals with an informal group of Satanists, some affiliated with the church, some not. He talks of private parties at undisclosed locations, where people drink absinthe and indulge in hedonistic pleasures. He hints at another world and shows off a video on his cell phone of a recent Satanist party. It's of him, shirtless, silent, and smiling, getting "flog-whipped." Whap, whap, whap.
Typically he expresses his beliefs through music. A guitarist and singer, he fronts a band called Infernal Divinity. He performs as his alter ego, Jackal Rofocale, Lucifer's middle name. Last Wednesday, he and his bandmates rehearsed at a bare Long Island City studiothe latest song inspired by the alleged attack, aptly entitled "Hate Crime." Romano belted out a raw mix of thrasher metal and hard punk. Yet there were no Satanic messages embedded in the lyrics. The Satanism came when Romano stripped down to a black T-shirt that read: "I'm really easy to get along with once you people learn to worship me."
"Check it out!" he exclaimed. "A Satanist friend of mine got me this shirt in the Village."
"Nah," he scoffed, "the East Village."
Middle Village may be only five miles away from St. Marks Place, but it feels decades removed. On a recent Sunday, people bustled in and out of shops bearing Italian names: Rosa's Pizzeria. Colombo's Pharmacy. Catalino Bakery. Adults greeted each other on corners. Kids congregated in parks.
Around here, lawyers for Rotondi and Scarpinito are bound to find a sympathetic ear. Ask folks about the Satanist assault and you're likely to get blank stares or a dismissive "There's more to it than that." A 22-year-old resident named Anthony puts it this way: "These kids wouldn't just go up and jump a Satanist for the hell of it. It doesn't work that way around here."