Late one Saturday, members of a gang in a Bronx neighborhood spotted one of their recruits coming out of an apartment around the corner from their hangout. Most people in this Bronx enclave know one another, and this particular apartment was the home of a gay man known by neighbors as "La Reina" — the queen.
The members of the loosely organized street crew known as the Latin King Goonies wanted to know why their 17-year-old wannabe was there — and when they found out, they snapped, authorities said, setting off a weekend rampage that officials call one of the worst anti-gay attacks in recent city history.
It included the beatings and torture of three others, including the man thought to have a sexual encounter with the teen, authorities say. Eleven people have been arrested so far.
Experts say such attacks, however shocking, were driven by the ultra-macho world of gangs, where homosexuality is a strict taboo.
"The gang culture, it's the epitome of bravado, of masculinity," said Sergio Argueta, a former gang member who left the life and is now an advocate for troubled youths. "It's just not really acceptable to be gay, and especially not when you're trying to join a gang and they don't know it, and find out."
In this case, the 17-year-old recruit was spotted by the suspected ringleader, Idelfonzo Mendez and other members of the crew outside the 30-year-old man's apartment, authorities say.
'Can't believe what happened'
Most people in the neighborhood knew the man was gay. Xavier Pena, who works at El Tio grocery, the bodega at the foot of the man's building, said he was friendly and well-liked.
"He was very nice," he said. "I just can't believe what happened."
Others, like the cousin of suspect Bryan Almonte, say the man was dangerous because he solicited sex from teens.
"Whatever happened to him was wrong, but what he was doing was wrong, too. It was wrong, but he brought it upon himself," Marisol Almonte said Thursday.
The attacks are the markings of angry amateurs, experts said. In established gangs like the actual Latin Kings, there's a smaller chance of this type of assault because the members are often already under heavy law enforcement scrutiny, said Robert Hart, a former FBI agent with the Long Island Gang Task Force who is now in private security.
"If they weren't the real Latin Kings, if they were wannabes, they would be worried they'd never get taken on as real members, they'd have to show they don't tolerate this," Hart said. Whether the Latin King Goonies aspired to join the real Latin Kings — one of the largest gangs in the United States — is unknown.
Some established gangs allow gay members, and others employ a military-style "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but most have strict rules on sexual orientation, experts said.
"The very nature of a gang is built upon its reputation power and status in the neighborhood, how they're perceived," Argueta said. "They would never want to be associated with anyone who would diminish how they're viewed in the eyes of others, their masculinity. And being a gay man often means you're seen as effeminate; to them that translates to weak."
The crew used an abandoned brick house on a quiet slope across from an elementary school as their headquarters.
Neighbors said the guys were a nuisance, partying there at night, but weren't initially threatening. They were nice to the neighborhood kids, buying them ice cream and even setting up a makeshift basketball hoop at the curb where they'd all play.
But the space was used the weekend of Oct. 3 as a torture chamber to attack the men, authorities say.
Mendez and three others — Nelson Falu, David Rivera and Jose Dominguez — brought the teen to the house and attacked him until he confessed to having had a sexual encounter with the 30-year-old, police said. Through their interrogation, they also found out about a second teen thought to have done the same. Mendez shoved the wooden handle of a plunger into the first teen's rectum, authorities said.
"Are you a faggot?" he asked, according to the criminal complaint. "Do you like this?"
It was nearly 5 a.m. Sunday by the time the teen was let go, bloody and bruised.
"If you snitch, your family is gonna get it," they said, according to prosecutors. The teen told no one for days.
After that, two others were attacked at the apartment — the second 17-year-old and the 30-year-old, who was also sodomized. The 30-year-old's brother was also attacked when the group took his keys and opened his apartment.
The men then spent hours cleaning up the scene, whitewashing the walls and bleaching the floors, police said. But enough DNA evidence survived to make arrests.
'We don't feel secure anymore'
Robbery detectives investigating the break-in at the brother's home started to suspect there was more to the story and pushed the brother for details. He eventually revealed the men who robbed him had a cell phone with his brother live on the other end, pleading to give them whatever they wanted.
The cops knew the brother was also assaulted, though he said it was a random jumping — and from there they pieced together the attacks.
The suspects face charges including sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment and assault, all as hate crimes. Their attorneys and families insist they are innocent and say they are not members of a gang. They say the men have not been allowed to tell their side of the story and that the 30-year-old was paying boys for sex. The age of consent in New York is 16.
Ten of the suspects appeared in court Thursday. An 11th suspect arrested Thursday was being arraigned Friday in the Bronx on charges including assault as a hate crime.
Luis Garcia, 26, is accused of punching one of the victims twice with a chain wrapped around his fist. There was no number at the address police gave for Garcia.
The alleged attacks, while vicious, were specific, and police do not believe there is an imminent threat of additional attacks against gays — or anyone else — in the area. But they have still deeply affected residents.
"We are moving now away from here," said 18-year-old Pedro Gomez, who lives two doors down from the gang's headquarters and was on his way to Bronx Community College on Wednesday. "My parents do not feel it's safe anymore for me or my two sisters."
Ten days after the attacks, a fresh bouquet of flowers sat at the steps of the home. A loose strand of police tape hung across the whitewashed garage. A pair of old, black roller-skates hung from an electrical wire above.
"It's just we don't feel secure anymore," Gomez said. "And it just seems bad here now."
Associated Press writer Jim Fitzgerald contributed to this report.