More Arrests Made in Queens Gay Man’s Murder
[UPDATE] March 21 -- Earlier today, the NYPD announced the arrest of two men in connection with the murder of gay Queens man David Rangel. Elijah Agyepong of the Bronx was arrested on March 21 and charged with first-degree murder, police said. And Cecil Golden of the Bronx was arrested on March 20, and charged with first-degree murder and criminal possession of stolen property.
Rangel was found dead, stuffed under his couch, at his Jackson Heights apartment on Jan. 26. He was one of three gay men found slain in New York City earlier this year, prompting concerns from community leaders that the slayings might be related. But police have it said it now appears that different suspects were involved in each incident.
[UPDATE] Feb. 16 -- Arrests were made yesterday in the murder of gay man Charles Romo. Two homeless brothers, Ralph Stokes, 52, and his brother Keith Stokes, 50, charged with second-degree murder, as well as first-degree robbery. Keith Stokes’ girlfriend Bridgette Cash, 38, was charged with grand larceny, as well as criminal possession of stolen property.
According to an article in the New York Post, police sources said the suspects were nabbed through surveillance video in the building. Detectives believe it was a robbery gone bad.
The murders of three gay men over the course of two weeks is sending a collective shudder through the New York City gay community.
For now at least, investigators do not believe the cases are either hate crimes or related. Police officials join elected officials in advising extreme caution, however, especially during online hookups.
"In both cases there was no sign of forced entry, and in both cases, both victims were strangled or choked to death," said Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm of the two cases in his District.
On Jan. 28, Charles Romo, a gay man who lived in the Hamilton Heights section of Manhattan, was found dead in his apartment, bound and with a bag tied over his head. On Jan. 26, public middle-school teacher David Rangel was found strangled under his couch in the Jackson Heights section of Queens.
Joseph Benzinger’s dead body was discovered Feb. 10 in his room at the Crown Motor Inn in Elmhurst, Queens. A man was recently arrested and charged with his murder. No signs of forced entry were found at any of the scenes. These three killings join that of gay activist Lou Rispoli, who was beaten to death last October in Sunnyside, Queens. That murder remains unsolved.
At a press Feb. 12 news conference outside the Crown Motor Inn, Dromm urged gay men throughout New York City to be vigilant. Joining Dromm was New York City Anti-Violence Project Deputy Director Ejeris Dixon and Tony Simone, who represented the office of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
"I want to express my concern about these recent murders and my condolences to the victims’ families and friends," said Council Speaker Quinn in a statement.
Openly gay Councilmember Dromm noted that the murders of Benzinger and Rangel were within a five-minute walking distance of each other. In light of the lack of forced entry, Dromm presented the theory that some of the victims met their killers via online dating sites.
"These murders are of great concern to the LGBT community," Dromm said. "When I first heard about them reported in the media, it came to my mind there was a possibility they could be [online related], because those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender have heard this story often." Both the Romo and Rangel murder occurred in Dromm’s City Council district.
Chilling Similarities in Murders
Police are currently examining video from the Crown Motor Inn and other murder scenes, and Dromm stated that the precincts involved are in communication with each other with regard to the Rangel and Benzinger killings.
While praising law enforcement for their ongoing efforts, Dromm pressed the NYPD "to use every resource it has to solve these crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice swiftly."
The scene of Romo’s killing in Hamilton Heights also showed no sign of forced entry. In addition, all three were gay, middle-aged, strangled or choked to death, robbed and, perhaps most important, had appeared to have opened their doors willingly to their assailants. That has prompted some reporters to speculate a serial killer is operating in New York City targeting older homosexual men.
For his part, Dromm demurred any speculation until all the evidence has been examined. For now, the NYPD is treating the homicide cases as unrelated and as not the work of one person.texttexttext
Police Arrest Boyfriend in Benzinger Case
On Feb. 14, Dromm announced an arrest in the Benzinger case. The NYPD has charged 23-year-old Lleuyel Garcia of Hamilton Heights with murder and robbery, tampering with physical evidence and criminal possession of stolen property.
A source said that Garcia had stolen the victim’s wallet and cell phone, which police used to track him down, along with video footage from the Crown Motor Inn’s security cameras. Benzinger and Garcia apparently were involved in a romantic or sexual relationship, and had an argument prior to the killing.
Police do not now view Garcia as a suspect in the other murders.
"I commend the swift action taken by the NYPD to make an arrest in the murder of Joseph Benzinger," said Dromm. "Despite the arrest, it is vitally important that we continue to remain vigilant. The other murders committed against gay men remain unsolved but I am hopeful that the NYPD will capture the perpetrators. Again, I want to urge everyone that it is always important to practice safety whether meeting people online or in person."
Advocates Advise Extreme Caution When Hooking Up
Dromm warned people to exercise extreme caution during dating, whether it be online, meeting someone in a bar or café, taking someone home, or going to a motel.
"We know that dating is not inherently violent, but that stigma causes violence," noted AVP’s Dixon. "It is homophobia and transphobia that cause the violence, and it is shame that people feel from meeting people online."
Dixon shared basic tips. Make a safety plan. Let people know whom you are going to meet and where you are going to meet them. Meet in a public place.
In an effort to create safety, Dixon held a Feb. 13 event entitled "REAL TALKS! Staying Safe with Online Pick-ups" that outlined further information and safety tips for meeting people. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/cxmsbnr.
"I urge all people to be aware of these crimes and to do everything they can to protect themselves," Dixon said in a statement. "If violence does happen, it is not your fault. You have no blame, but can reach out for support."
Quinn emphasized that the perpetrators, once caught, would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
"My biggest concern is that people need to be safe," Dromm said. "There are still murderers on the loose, and that is a huge problem for the LGBT community. I don’t want anybody else hooking up with these guys who committed these two crimes."
Anyone with any information on any of these crimes should call the NYPD Crime Stoppers hotline at 800-577-TIPS.