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.
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."
Even if Romano was targeted, a beefy 35-year-old named Jack wouldn't call the beating a hate crime. It's no secret on the street that the three young men knew each other before. "The kid got a beatin' and he happens to be a Satanist. One worships God, one worships the devil. So what?"
They're not the only ones wondering whether the beating or fight or whatever it was qualifies as a hate crime. The national Libertarian Party has seized on the case as proof that hate crime laws must go. After party spokesperson George Getz saw a reference to the case on the Drudge Report, he fired off a January 13 statement declaring, "Attack on Satanist shows absurdity of hate crime laws." Libertarians argue such legislation veers dangerously close to criminalizing people's thoughts. Getz thinks the unusual circumstances of a Satanist as victim could sharpen the debate.
"Prosecutors seem to be saying that Satanism is a religious belief, which would strike most Americans as bizarre," he explains.
Interestingly, many Satanists also reject the concept of hate crime legislation. Individual libertarians at heart, they see such statutes as redundant attempts at policing, and thought policing at that. Svengali, the Church of Satan minister, sums up the sentiment: "What difference does it make if a victim is a Jew, Sikh, Scientologist, or staggering drunk? Someone committed a heinous crime and should be punished."
This is not to say that Satanists don't want equal treatment under the law. "We are a real religion," says High Priest Gilmore. The Church of Satan has legal status as a "corporation sole" just like any other church. The United States military allows its members to inscribe "Church of Satan" on dog tags. And military chaplains' guidebooks feature a page on its beliefs.
If hate crime laws are meant to protect the most unpopular of religious minorities, Satanists certainly fit the bill. Too often, says Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Bromley, who studies new religions, the public confuses Satanism with the bogus urban legend of underground cults that abuse children, sacrifice babies, and rape women. "It's fairly common for people who are perceived to be Satanists to become targets of harassment," Bromley says. He's heard of people getting cars keyed and windshields smashed. Sometimes the harassment turns physically violent.
As the Queens case heads for trial, the general hate crime debate will continue. But this particular outcome may have meaning only to the two defendantsand to Romano. "Maybe this case will force people to open their eyes and see how their assumptions about my religion are wrong," he says. Maybe he'll be able to walk the streets again, fully himself.
"It's called the justice system," he says. "Maybe they'll do what's just."