by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
'Go ahead, try telling the cops. They won't do anything & you can't touch me.' That's what U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Benjamin Ford told Blake Hayes, a 24-year-old DJ for New York City's WPLJ-FM radio, after he attacked Hayes and his friends Alec Bell and Danny Calvert outside of a New York West Side bar.
Hayes told SGN that the punches Ford threw were accompanied by anti-Gay slurs: 'Faggots' 'Homos.' 'Get AIDS and die, you fucking Queers.'
The West Side Gay bashing turned into an international incident ending with the New York Police Department (NYPD) crossing the pond to England in order to track down the suspect - Staff Sergeant Ford - a Bronze Star recipient. Last week, Hayes told SGN that nearly five months later, justice has been served by an unlikely source: The U.S. Air Force.
EARLY HOURS OF
SEPTEMBER 26, 2009
The confrontation happened outside McCoy's Bar in Hell's Kitchen. Like so many Gay bashings, the suspect was drunk, belligerent and looking for trouble. Unfortunately for Hayes and his friends, they became the targets of Ford's aggression. The trouble for Ford was that Hayes, Bell, and Calvert are Gay.
According to Hayes and eyewitness accounts, which Ford did not contest at his U.S. Air Force punishment review board, the Air Force Staff Sergeant flicked a lit cigarette at the three men as they exited McCoy's Bar.
After he called Bell a "homo," the group reportedly began to make fun of Ford's baldness.
That's when Ford exploded in anger - shoving Hayes and Calvert and then punching Bell in the face.
After the assault, Ford bragged about being "untouchable," due to his decorated military service, told them to die of AIDS and went inside McCoy's Bar as if nothing had happened at all.
"One dented car, two eyewitnesses, and at least five cops later, we expected him to be punished," Hayes told SGN. "But that night, Ford was right. He walked away without a report even being filed."
Much to Hayes' disbelief, NYPD told him "there wasn't enough of a physical injury to warrant an arrest." In addition to that, the police refused to charge Ford with property damage for the dented car because the car had New Jersey plates.
When the group went to the nearest police precinct, they were again met with resistance.
"On paper, he's a hero," Hayes said of Ford. "But when it comes to what happened & he deserves to be punished."
Hayes is quick to note the conflicting portraits of the suspect. On the one hand, Ford is an expert at defusing bombs who was part of a military contingent whose job it is to protect the president and other world leaders, while on the other hand, Ford is a drunk fueled with rage, anger, and anti-Gay sentiment.
Still, Hayes told SGN, "It doesn't matter what you do for a living or what kind of career you have - it doesn't give you the right to Gay bash."
Initially, Ford's military I.D. seemed to have bought him a "get out of jail free" card. Hayes says that surveillance cameras caught Ford handing the NYPD officer his I.D. and "that was that." Hayes said, "They never asked any of us for our I.D. It was clear what we were up against."
What Ford - and the NYPD officers, for that matter - didn't expect is that Hayes was planning on making noise until someone - anyone - listened. That someone turned out to be New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn.
Hayes and company would not keep mum, and they would not accept that what happened was justified. Hayes found an ally in Quinn, an open Lesbian on the city council. "She is fantastic," he said. "She's really good on LGBT issues."
Quinn immediately went to work. She put out a statement for an internal investigation of the officers on the scene that had seemingly done nothing in the face of a hate crime. Hayes says, "from then on, NYPD was great." They identified the attacker and began the process of "hunting him down."
The Hate Crimes Task Force was assigned to the case and eventually learned that Ford was assigned to an Air Force base five hours outside London, England. An NYPD Intelligence Division detective stationed in London drove to the base and interviewed Ford, who admitted he was at the scene but insisted his alleged victims started the fight - a lie that would later come back to haunt the staff sergeant, as the Air Force would eventually pile on an extra charge of lying to military investigators.
Quinn said the planned prosecution of Ford would "send a strong message" that hate crimes would not be tolerated.
"When the Air Force heard about the incident, they took it very seriously," said Hayes.
Due to the complicated nature of the case, Ford could only be charged solely by the U.S. Air Force, or brought back to New York to face his victims. Hayes says the District Attorney's office gave him a choice between military justice and civil justice.
Not knowing what to expect, Hayes opted for the staff sergeant to appear before his commanding officer for punishment because "the Air Force piled on the charges."
According to U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Hartsell, Ford was served with an Article 15 (issuing a false statement) and three counts for assault and battery. Ford's commanding officer has docked his pay, lowered his rank, and wrote, "Ford was in New York for a presidential task and failed. He drank in excess and confronted people minding their own business. He used Gay slurs inappropriately. He knowingly lied to investigators when confronted about the incident."
The commander also emphasized that his punishment be visible, and must serve as a lesson. Hartsell told Hayes that the military has instituted measures to put Ford through alcohol abuse classes and anger management classes.
Many are considering the punishment to be a landmark milestone in the way the military is facing anti-Gay sentiment. With a possible repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on the horizon, Gay advocates say the military is sending a strong signal that Gay bashing will not be tolerated in the ranks or by servicemembers on or off duty.
Last week, Ford wrote a letter to Hayes, Bell and Calvert apologizing for the pain and suffering he caused. "What I did was horrible, and I'm embarrassed and ashamed," he wrote. "I hurled horrible slurs, in an egregious offense that you did not deserve. & I have been learning about why I lashed out like I did at you that night. & I embarrassed myself, my family, and my country. & What happened that night is a permanent mark on my record, and on my mind."
A CHANGED MAN
"This has changed my life," Hayes told SGN. "I was always involved in activism, but now I do it with passion. Now I get it. When I think about what happened that night, I realize we were lucky. There are people who have a much worse outcome. People have been killed during a Gay bashing."
Hayes says he is proud that he did not stay silent and demanded justice. "We turned our lemons into lemonade," he said. Although the physical injuries were not long-lasting, Hayes says the spiritual impact the attack made was substantial.
"I think we handled it well. When people ask 'why didn't you fight back?' the answer is simple - it would have been just another drunken fight outside a bar," he told SGN. "We took the higher road by taking a step back and not engaging our attacker. In doing so, we've helped raise awareness. There are better ways to fight back - violence will solve nothing."
Hayes says that victims of Gay bashing should not feel embarrassed. "If it happens to you, don't be ashamed," he advises. "Instead, take action. Talk about it and pursue justice."
Speaker Quinn couldn't agree more. She said that because Hayes and his friends were brave and demanded justice, "this sentence shows that if you commit a hate crime in New York City, you will be pursued, apprehended and prosecuted."
Quinn says she applauds the U.S. Air Force for "taking swift and appropriate action" on this case.
"This crime was also notable because of reports from the victims that NYPD officers responding to the scene did not appropriately recognize the seriousness of the incident and failed to collect contact information from the alleged assailant," Quinn said in a statement to SGN. "An Internal Affairs Bureau investigation is in progress and we are awaiting the results of this investigation."
Hayes says that he is pleased with the final results because "that night, the police let [Ford] walk away."
"Ideally, I would love for him to be dragged back to New York and thrown in front of TV cameras to face us," he said., "but I am pleased that he has been punished and wasn't allowed to slip through the cracks."
For Hayes, the most touching moment to come out of the ordeal is the e-mail and Facebook messages he's received from people around the country. "People, Gay and straight, have sent me words of support."
In the end, Hayes says he has been more affected by the positive emotional outpouring from people than by the incident itself.
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