Hate crime charges have been added in a grisly assault last summer that left a gay Louisiana teen in a coma for three days.
Holden White of Lafayette was just 18 when he met 19-year-old Chance Seneca on the gay dating app Grindr. After communicating for a month, the two young men decided to meet in person in late June.
White, a sophomore at Louisiana State University, Eunice, said he invited Seneca over to his new apartment, but Seneca convinced him to come to his father's house to play video games.
After some awkward conversation, White said his next memory is of being pulled backward by a cord and being choked so severely that “all the blood vessels in my face ruptured” before he passed out.
White said that when he regained consciousness, he was naked in a bathtub looking up at Seneca slicing his left wrist.
“I remember thinking, 'Well, this is it,'” he told The Acadiana Advocate. “The last words I said to myself were just 'stay calm.' Over and over and over in my head I was just repeating to myself to stay calm."
According to the local news site, Seneca called 911 and told the dispatcher that he had killed a man. He was at the house when officers responded.
White suffered stab wounds, blunt force trauma to the back of his head and cuts on his wrists that were so deep his hands were nearly severed. He spent nearly a month in the hospital and in rehabilitation.
“When I woke up, I didn’t remember anything. I didn’t remember going to his house,” White told NBC News. “The human mind, I’ve since learned, will block out traumatic experiences.”
Since then, details from the encounter have emerged even as his body continues to heal. The scars on his neck, where White said Seneca took the tip of a knife and repeatedly twisted into his throat, have already started to fade.
He’s regained most of the use of his right hand, but his left hand is still numb and doesn’t have full grip strength. His left hand was damaged more severely — the artery and several tendons were severed — and may require more surgery.
He’s also suffered some short-term memory problems.
Seneca was arrested at the scene and charged with attempted second-degree murder, and remains jailed on $250,000 bond.
Police initially declined to include hate crime charges, claiming they believed the attack stemmed from an argument between the two men.
"There were several indicators that point us to the direction that it was not a hate crime," Sgt. Wayne Griffin of the Lafayette Police Department told The Acadiana Advocate shortly after the initial charges were filed. “Just because of the sensitivity of the case, we cannot go into any more about it.”
Griffin declined to comment further this week and referred NBC News to the FBI.
Alicia Irmscher, public affairs officer with the FBI in New Orleans, said the agency is aware of the incident but would not address whether it was conducting an investigation.
White, however, said he was talking to FBI agents and the Lafayette Parish District Attorney’s Office about the case.
The hate crime charges, which carry an extra five-year prison sentence, were added by the district attorney on Jan. 20.
Despite the police’s initial misgivings, White is adamant he was targeted because he is a gay man.
"He chose to go on the app Grindr,” he told local news station KATC-TV. “He went on an app designated for gay people. He chose to choose someone who is gay and very proud of his sexuality. He said this in prison. He said he chose me because I have a smaller stature and it would be easier to kill me. He knew what he was doing."
But he’s still frustrated by the police department’s handling of the case and by how long it took the attack to be classified as a hate crime.
“For them to shut it down as a lovers’ quarrel is just unbelievable,” he said. “Let’s say we did get into an argument, which we didn’t, who would go to that point over a dumb argument? To bash someone in the back of the skull with a hammer? To try and slice their hands off?”
He recalled being questioned by officers in his hospital room the day after he emerged from his coma. “They asked me the most brutal questions while I was still sedated,” he said. “They just bombarded me. When I think about it, it’s just sad.”
He also said he doesn’t understand why police failed to provide hospital staff with a rape kit to determine if he had been sexually assaulted. “It scares me that I don’t know and that I may never know,” he said.
He believes his sexuality may be a factor in how the department addressed the case.
“We always have homophobia in southern Louisiana, so if that was a part of it, I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I don’t want to think it, but I can’t help it. When we go to court, I’ll still thank the police for arresting that man, but that’s all I can thank them for.”
Should the case go to trial, White knows he’ll likely have to relive the worst episode of his life. But he says he’s ready for it.
“It’s not a question of me having to think about it again. I have cross shaped scars on my wrist — I’m never not thinking about it,” he said, adding that he’s eager to give his victim’s impact statement.
“I know some people cry, or get upset. I won’t. I’ll talk to him in a proper manner and tell him how I feel. I want him to know he doesn’t scare me. Once it’s done, then I’ll be ready to move past this,” he said.
Seneca’s attorney, J. Clay LeJeune, said the additional hate crime charge came “as a complete surprise.”
“I have received no information from the State supporting this position,” he told NBC News in an email. “We will be entering a not guilty plea to the original and amended charge.”
Seneca’s next pretrial hearing is scheduled for March 2.
Attacks based on sexual orientation represented 16.8 percent of all hate crimes in 2019, the last year statistics were available from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. That represents the third largest category after race and religion.
But reporting of bias incidents is not mandatory, and Lafayette is one of hundreds of cities that reported zero hate crimes for the year.
White said he’s been moved by the outpouring of support he has received, including a GoFundMe campaign for his recovery that garnered more than $100,000.“I didn’t expect to hear from people all over the world — I’ve had people from Australia text me,” he shared. “At the same time, my story was kind of swept under the rug at first. People in my home state are saying they’re just hearing about it now.”
There have also been cruel comments on social media and message threads. White said he’ll sometimes jump into a news article and respond. “They need to hear the full story. What if someone reads that comment and thinks, ‘Oh, maybe that’s the truth?’”
He urges other victims of hate crimes to advocate for themselves and not just rely on the system for justice.
“Never give up — if you stop trying, or you stop talking about your case, it can be swept away and just disappear.”