Image: Ecuadorean man's funeral
The coffin containing the body of Ecuadorean citizen Marcelo Lucero arrives at Gualaceo, Ecuador, to be cremated, on Wednesday. Lucero, who lived in the U.S., was killed Nov. 8 in Long Island, New York, in what police called a racist attack.
updated 11/22/2008 6:05:05 PM ET 2008-11-22T23:05:05

The flowers have wilted and the candles are burned out at a makeshift memorial where an immigrant from Ecuador was stabbed to death in what police say was a hate crime carried out by marauding teenagers.

Marcelo Lucero's death Nov. 8 has drawn the attention of officials in Ecuador and forced the Suffolk County executive, the co-founder of a national group against illegal immigration, to apologize for belittling the importance of the case.

Seven Patchogue-Medford High School students have been charged, one of them with murder. And the case has once again highlighted the extraordinary amount of tension between white Long Island residents and the booming Hispanic population.

At a funeral last week in the victim's hometown in Ecuador, the Rev. Jorge Moreno called Lucero's death "a product of a feeling of xenophobia that makes some people believe they are worth more than others." Ecuador's ambassador to the United States, Luis Gallegos, described it as a lynching.

A grand jury indictment and comments by police and prosecutors paint a picture of a group of bored high school students who regularly found enjoyment in what they called "beaner-jumping," a derogatory euphemism for attacking Hispanics.

"To them, it was a sport," Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

Immigrants on Long Island say they are often harassed, but are reluctant to go to police for fear they might be deported.

"Spanish people think the police department is the monster, you can't talk to them," said Jose Bonilla, who runs a grocery store and deli and was friendly with Lucero. "People were scared. They thought they would be asked for immigration papers, that's why they don't call."

Deadly attack
The 37-year-old Lucero, who came to the U.S. 16 years ago and worked at a dry-cleaners, was with a friend Nov. 8 when they were surrounded near the Patchogue train station.

Lucero's friend escaped but Lucero tried desperately to fight back, smacking one of the teens with his belt, authorities said. One of the boys, 17-year-old Jeffrey Conroy, is accused of plunging a knife into Lucero's chest before running away. The prosecutor says the other six were unaware of the stabbing until Conroy told them.

Conroy is scheduled to be arraigned Monday on second-degree murder as a hate crime, manslaughter and other charges. The others entered not guilty pleas Thursday to gang assault, conspiracy and attempted assault. Conroy faces 25 years to life and the others five to 25 years if convicted of the most serious charges.

Attorneys for the seven insist their clients are innocent and several have denied suggestions the teens are bigots. But prosecutors said that a half-hour before Lucero's killing, the group attempted to accost another Hispanic man, and that two of the seven had attacked another man 18 hours earlier.

According to Spota, one of the seven allegedly told police: "I don't go out doing this very often, maybe once a week."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is a co-founder of Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform, a national group against illegal immigration. He signed a local law requiring county contractors to prove that their employees are in the country legally, and after Lucero was killed, he initially suggested the media had blown the killing out of proportion because of his own view on immigration.

He later apologized for his claim, saying: "It was the wrong thing to say because there could have been an appearance that we were indifferent to that terrible crime and that is the last thing in the world that I would want to do."

Hostile climate
Advocates say that harsh anti-immigration rhetoric by Levy and others created a climate that led to attacks on Hispanics. But Levy cited statistics claiming hate crimes in Suffolk County had gone down during his five years in office.

Animosity over the influx of thousands of immigrants from Central and South America has been simmering for nearly a decade on Long Island.

Two local men are serving long prison terms for attempted murder after luring two Mexican laborers to a warehouse in 2000 with the promise of work, only to beat them with shovels.

Two years later, a Mexican family's home in Farmingville was destroyed by teenagers who tossed fireworks through a window on the Fourth of July.

Bonilla, the store owner, said some positive things have emerged from the killing. He said a community meeting with police, Patchogue village officials and others held in the wake of the killing helped clarify the situation.

He said his customers are still "a little scared, but they see the community trying to work together ... so it can't happen again."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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