It’s been a year and a half since college student Rishi Maharaj, walking with two female cousins down 114th Street in South Ozone Park, Queens, was beaten nearly to death in what prosecutors say was not only attempted murder but also a ‘gang assault’ and hate crime. The 22-year-old Maharaj still suffers from headaches, and the pain of the case won’t leave this quiet neighborhood hard by Aqueduct Racetrack.
The attack, on the evening of September 20, 1998, was initially characterized as a brutal assault in which the slightly built Maharaj, of Indo-Caribbean descent, was called a “fucking Indian” and savagely kicked and punched by local resident Nuno Martins, while two of Martins’s friends, Peter DiMarco and Luis Amorim, smacked him with baseball bats. Almost immediately, stories about the case spurred publicity and protests, and lured politicians like Borough President Claire Shulman to Maharaj’s hospital bed.
This definitely was a hateful beating, and Maharaj has the broken jaw to prove it. But a hate crime? A radically different version of events will emerge when the case comes to trial next month. In this scenario, Maharaj was beaten up by Martins, but the two other young men didn’t join in and no baseball bats were used. Also, the first people who brought weapons to the scene were Maharaj’s relatives, who live down the street and were summoned by his two young cousins while the student was being kicked and punched.
Likewise, in that version, cops bungled the investigation by ignoring eyewitness accounts from the first neighbors on the scene and were intimidated by Maharaj’s angry relatives into believing that he was beaten by all three men and that the attack was a hate crime.
Not likely to surface during the trial, however, are the political undercurrents of the case. The first neighbor on the scene, civic activist Donna Gilmartin, told Queens D.A. Richard Brown—after the D.A. had already labeled the incident a hate crime—that she was a witness and that the cops had gotten it all wrong.
A Brown spokeswoman says prosecutors still believe that all three men attacked Maharaj and that bats were used. When asked about other possible versions of the incident and whether prosecutors had backed themselves into a corner by calling the attack a hate crime, she says, “No, the case was decided on its merits.”
For Rishi Maharaj, portions of the night that he and his cousins set out for a Chinese restaurant are little more than a blur. “One moment you’re walking down the street. The next thing you know, you’re being wheeled out of a hospital,” says Maharaj, in his first public comments on the case. (After being pounded into the ground, his head hitting a brick fence, he was taken to the hospital in critical condition and couldn’t open his mouth for two months.) Nevertheless, Maharaj is convinced that he was attacked by all three men, and swears he did nothing to provoke the beating. “This is just another American tale,” he says. “The Irish went through it, the Italians went through it, the Jews went through it. Three idiotic young men attacked an innocent human being walking down the street. I can forgive them for what they did to me. But they need to be punished and they need to understand why they’re being punished. We need to let people know that hate won’t be tolerated.”
The crucial police report on the incident, taken by Officer Steven Gentile, relies almost entirely on the claims by Maharaj’s cousins who were with him that night. They said Martins approached Maharaj and said, “You fucking Indian, I’m going to fuck you up,” and punched him in the head. The girls also said that Amorim and DiMarco, each holding a bat, approached Rishi and hit him on the head numerous times with the bats, while Martins “was punching and kicking the complainant in the head and face.” They said that Martins also told Maharaj, “You fucking little Indian piece of shit. . . . This is never going to be a neighborhood until you leave.”
Insiders say that defense attorneys may argue that racial epithets were thrown around only after the incident, as Martins was led away.
Amorim, the only one of the three to testify before the grand jury, told police that Martins had told Maharaj, “You are going to wake up my mother.” Then a fight began. “I froze through most of the fight,” Amorim told police, “once I saw that kid’s head hitting the fence.”
Attorneys for Amorim and DiMarco hotly deny that the two men joined in what they contend was simply a fistfight between two men. They say their clients were trying to be peacemakers. Insiders say Martins was drunk; his attorney acknowledges that Martins had been drinking.
What exactly happened that night in front of 150-11 114th Street? Sources close to the case say that neighbor Donna Gilmartin, hearing a fight, ran across the street and found Maharaj lying in a pool of blood. Cradling him, she saw a group of angry people, one of them holding a machete. Mistakenly, she thought they had attacked Maharaj. Actually, they were the young man’s relatives, summoned by one of the girls with Maharaj.
Gilmartin yelled to her husband, who was across the street, to call police and paramedics. He noticed that one of the three young men had a baseball bat and persuaded him to put it down. DiMarco’s statement to police that night doesn’t mention a bat. But Amorim told police that after two guys, one with a machete and another with a shovel, came running up, “Pete went to get the bat inside the house.” Then, Amorim said, Martins started arguing with the guy with the machete. “There was a scuffle,” Amorim told police, “and eventually it was placed on my driveway on the driver side of my car.” Police reports indicate that Martins wrestled the machete away from the person.
Defense attorneys are expected to contend that no blood was found on that—or any—bat. And a veteran medical examiner is expected to testify that Maharaj’s injuries, though severe, were not caused by a bat.
Martins did admit to damaging somebody. “He was getting kicked in the face by me,” Martins told police. ” . . . He was knocked out. He was snoring. I bent over and picked him up from behind, held him up, and slapped him in the face to try and wake him up. He didn’t wake. Suddenly mayhem broke out. Suddenly I was in the back of a police car.” Maharaj was rushed to a hospital in critical condition, and the three men were hauled off to jail. They soon made bail.
According to court records, Donna Gilmartin tried to tell her version of the incident to the grand jury but was told by prosecutors that, if she did, she might be questioned about the actions of her husband that night, who they suspected of hiding baseball bats after the incident. She refused to sign a waiver of immunity and did not testify. Her husband, Robert Gilmartin, denies he hid bats or tampered with any evidence. He was investigated, but no charges were filed; prosecutors deny they tried to intimidate Gilmartin into not testifying. Insiders who support the alternate scenario say the prosecutors didn’t want the Gilmartins’ versions of the incident to muddy the waters of their case.
In any event, the grand jury threw the book at Martins, DiMarco, and Amorim, indicting them on charges of second-degree attempted murder, first-degree gang assault, first-, second-, and third-degree assault, fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, and second-degree aggravated harassment. The charges of harassment stem from a hate crime statute that penalizes assaultive behavior if it’s tied to the “race, color, religion, or national origin” of the victim.
Gilmartin, who’s active in local civic organizations and is a member of the 106th Precinct’s advisory group, refuses to be quoted about the attack. But motions filed by attorneys for DiMarco and Amorim indicate that she will be a key witness for the defense. Her version of the incident is not likely to comfort Maharaj.