Latinos Demand Equal Justice in the Hamptons 

Alexandra Ramón – Andrea Gabriela Armijo's sister – and her partner, Manuel Pucha, at their East Hampton house. Andrea Gabriela Armijo's body was found hanging from a tree on September 28, 2014. The Police deemed it a suicide, but the family is seeking to have the case reopened. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Alexandra Ramón – Andrea Gabriela Armijo’s sister – and her partner, Manuel Pucha, at their East Hampton house. Andrea Gabriela Armijo’s body was found hanging from a tree on Sept. 28, 2014. The police deemed it a suicide, but the family is seeking to have the case reopened. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

A summer paradise for celebrities and millionaires, the Hamptons are a cluster of opulent, suburban enclaves located on Long Island’s South Fork peninsula. However, a lesser-known reality exists in that area, where Latino residents feel ignored by the authorities. They are demanding justice and an end to discrimination.

The town of East Hampton, considered the most exclusive area in Suffolk County, is also home to a growing working-class population who moved there looking for jobs in the hospitality and construction industries, a demand created by the proliferation of upscale residences.

Manuel Pucha, a 29-year-old Ecuadorean, relocated here from New Jersey a decade ago to start his construction company. He successfully secured several contracts building multimillion-dollar homes. However, in September of 2014, the prosperous life he had built in East Hampton was devastated when the body of his sister-in-law, Andrea Gabriela Armijos, 21, was found hanging from a tree in the woods near Springs Fireplace Road, near her humble home.

Armijos’ neck was tied up with her own sweater, and she was hanging from a thin, low-hanging branch. Her body, weighing around 121 pounds, was touching the ground and her knees were bent.

A year after her death, which the authorities classified as a suicide, the Manhattan-based LatinoJustice PRLDEF organization is pressing for a criminal investigation claiming inconsistencies in the original probe.

“The detectives determined that it was a suicide even before the medical examiner issued a report. It is absurd to state that without conclusive evidence,” said Armijos’ sister Alexandra Ramón, 29. “There wasn’t a serious investigation. They were in a hurry to close the case.”

Attorney Foster Maer, from LatinoJustice PRLDEF, who has worked with the victim’s family since last year, wrote a letter to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell explaining his concern over the way the police handled the case.

“East Hampton Town Police detectives immediately acted as if her death were a suicide, not even considering the possibility that it might have been the result of a criminal act,” wrote Maer in the letter, dated Sept. 29, 2015.

Manuel Pucha shows a picture of his sister-in-law, Andrea Gabriela Armijos. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Manuel Pucha shows a picture of his sister-in-law, Andrea Gabriela Armijos. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Pucha remembered that his sister-in-law disappeared on Sept. 27, 2014, and that a brigade of relatives and friends searched for her in the woods that she used to cross to get to her job as a hairstylist at Jazmin Hair Salon, located between Three Mile Harbor Road and Springs Fireplace Road near the Bistrian sand pit.

When they did not find her, they asked the police to come to the house Andrea Gabriela shared with her sister Alexandra, brother-in-law Pucha and four other people.

“The officers did not want to go look for her that night. They said it was ‘dangerous,'” said Pucha. He described the area where Andrea Gabriela was found as an encampment for drug addicts and homeless people. “The next morning, our brigade found her body at a place where we had looked before,” he said.

Loose ends

Pucha said that he found Andrea Gabriela’s footprints in the mud alongside the tracks of larger, sneaker-type shoes.

“We believe that someone else was with her,” he said as he showed pictures of the marks in the mud. “The police overlooked many clues.”

Veteran police officer Dan Montgomery, now retired, of Professional Police and Public Safety Consulting in Arvada, Colorado, agreed with Pucha’s claim that the local police left loose ends in the investigation.

Montgomery, hired by LatinoJustice PRLDEF to issue an independent report, concluded that extensive flaws were committed in police procedure, such as failing to question Armijos’ ex-boyfriend, who was allegedly harassing her, and to adequately cordon off the crime scene for examination.

“They turned a deaf ear to the possibility of her ex-boyfriend being involved,” said Maer.

Ramón said that her sister met her ex-boyfriend on Facebook while she was still living in Ecuador, but that she was “disappointed” when they met in East Hampton and chose to end the relationship.

“She never wanted to say that he was bothering her. I now regret not insisting and having her tell me more,” said Ramón.

Armijos, who had only arrived on Long Island a little over a month before, spent three months in a detention center in Arizona. Her family said that she was released after her ex-boyfriend paid $2,000.

“This case needs to be examined by qualified homicide investigators,” wrote Montgomery in his report, which was sent to Supervisor Cantwell along with Maer’s letter. “It certainly seems that more could have been done in this investigation.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery also said that he didn’t have the necessary information to reach a conclusion on whether Armijos’ death was a suicide or a homicide.

“My sister’s body had marks as if she had been overpowered,” said Alexandra, showing the correspondence Andrea Gabriela sent her during her time in the detention center. In the letters, she said she was grateful to God for being alive and for her loving family.

Andrea Gabriela Armijos' sister holds up a letter. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Andrea Gabriela Armijos’ sister holds up a letter. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

An incident that occurred on Sept. 24 of last year is also worth pointing out. Armijos had been missing for several hours. The police had already been notified when she showed up at her house, her clothes soiled, saying that she had gotten lost.

The forensic report performed on Armijos’ dead body did not reveal signs of sexual assault or related trauma. Maer said that he talked to Dr. Michael J. Caplan, Suffolk County’s chief medical examiner, who classified the woman’s passing as a suicide for lack of evidence and police evidence that would corroborate a different cause of death.

Police denies faulty investigation

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael D. Sarlo said that the department “conducted a thorough and professional investigation in this tragic incident.”

“I regret that LatinoJustice PRLDEF does not have all our records or accept the large amount of information that we shared with the family regarding our investigation, said Sarlo. “The independent consultant they hired to examine the case clearly states in his written report that he did not review official East Hampton Police documents. His report was based on another report by LatinoJustice PRLDEF.”

Sarlo insisted that several factors in the inquiry led to its classification as a suicide, “many of which I am not authorized to reveal at this moment but which were given to the family. We did not ignore evidence or people with associated with the victim.”

The police chief said that this was a tragic case and that it is understandable that the family is unhappy with the results.

“We had a Spanish-speaking detective assigned to this case, who made sure that all parties involved were appropriately interviewed, and we also took additional measures to guarantee that the family was informed on the status of the investigation.”

Even though LatinoJustice PRLDEF claims that a translator would have helped the family understand the situation, Alexandra Ramón said that they did not request the service because her husband speaks English.

“The town’s district attorney and the City Council have already rejected petitions for an independent investigation,” said Sarlo.

Supervisor Larry Cantwell did not respond immediately to several requests for comment made by El Diario.

Although the East Hampton Town Police is autonomous, the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) has the authority to intervene in certain investigations such as homicides. The protocol states that the local police must notify the SCPD when a felony occurs.

Police neglect in Latino cases

“In the Hamptons, the interests of the police depend on the victim’s skin color,” said Yadira Vázquez, a Mexican 14-year resident of Hampton Bays. A housekeeper, she is a member of Women Without Borders, a group focused on Hispanic immigrant women’s issues which is affiliated with the nonprofit Services for the Advancement of Women (SEPA Mujer).

Vázquez, a mother and activist, said that the victims of violent crimes who do not speak English are less likely to get justice, especially in domestic abuse cases.

“Officers do not understand that we no longer live in the Hamptons of 30 years ago, when there were no Latinos,” she said. “We are now part of the community and deserve to be treated as equals.”

Vázquez said that she reported a domestic abuse incident in 2007 only to have the case dismissed because, supposedly, the police did not complete a full file. Later, the records on the report appeared to have been deleted.

“They do not take us seriously,” she lamented. “The glitter of the gold in these towns does not let them see what immigrant and marginalized communities go through.”

Noemí Sánchez, another Mexican member of Women Without Borders, moved to East Hampton in 1995. “In those days, finding a Hispanic face on the streets of this town was a pleasant surprise,” she said. “Back then, you were forbidden to speak Spanish at work, although discrimination is still the case today.”

The case of the lawsuit Chilean Jorge Kusanovic won against the Town of East Hampton claiming age, race and nationality discrimination is worth mentioning. Kusanovic, who had worked for the Department of Parks and Recreation for eight years, agreed to settle for $81,000 in September of last year. He alleged that he was denied promotions because of his race and that the city favored young white men for jobs despite their lack of the experience or skills required.

Sánchez said that in the last few years, the anti-immigrant, discriminatory climate had subsided in these high-profile towns, but that the relationship with the police is still a reason for concern for community-based organizations.

“There is a large gap between the discourse and the reality. Hiring more Hispanic cops who speak the language is not the solution if these officers are insensitive to our problems,” she said.

SEPA Mujer is one of the Latino organizations that have collaborated with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to mend fences between the immigrant community and the police.

Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, said that the local police departments are unwilling to implement agreements and programs seeking to strengthen links with minority residents.

“The community does not perceive a real effort on their part to eradicate anti-immigrant practices by the police and other justice and law enforcement agencies,” she said. “What has been ordered on paper is not being done in practice.”

Maffei said that the police’s neglect is related to the isolation suffered by immigrants, as was the case with Andrea Gabriela Armijos, whose only acquaintances were a few relatives.

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said that the Armijos case sends a message of impunity that erodes Long Island community’s trust in its police department.

“Justice is not imparted equally. There has been no real progress in that sense,” he said.

Joselo Lucero – the brother of Marcelo Lucero, killed in 2008 in a hate crime that forced Long Island institutions to come up with realistic solutions to eradicate the anti-immigrant climate in the area – said that local police are apathetic when dealing with criminal cases in which the victims are minorities.

“My brother’s death was a before-and-after, but there are still many pending issues on the Hispanic agenda.”

Activists acknowledged County Executive Bellone’s efforts to integrate immigrant communities, citing his executive order for language access of 2013 and admitting that eradicating the anti-immigrant climate is not an issue that can be solved in only one administrative term.

Bellone’s press office pointed out that the elected official is working to fulfill his commitment to improve the relationship between the community and the police, and that the executive is in constant communication with community-based organizations in an effort to reach the most vulnerable residents.

Cases in limbo and police abuse

LatinoJustice PRLDEF is also pressing to have the death of day laborer José Sánchez investigated, who was found dead on the William Floyd Parkway in October 2010. The body did not present signs of violence, and the police ruled it a death by natural causes. However, the Medical Examiner’s Office later determined that Sánchez had died of an internal hemorrhage. The case was reclassified as a homicide but, so far, the SCPD has made no arrests.

The delayed justice seen in the José Sánchez case comes after the case of former Sergeant Scott Greene, who was accused of systematically detaining and stealing from Hispanic drivers. The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office revealed that, between July 2010 and January 2014, the former officer stopped 21 Latino men for traffic violations.

The Hispanic face of the Hamptons

Figures gathered by the Bureau of the Census indicate that most of East Hampton’s newest 3,587 residents identify as Latino. In 1990, only 812 people were said to be Hispanic, but the number went up to 2,914 in that last decade.

The increase makes Latinos the fastest-growing ethnic group in the city. Hispanics currently represent 14.8 percent of East Hampton’s population.

The same is seen in Southampton Village, where 359 out of a total of 3,965 residents are Latino.

According to the Census Bureau, the Latino population in Hampton Bays grew 154 percent in the last decade, from 1,528 in the year 2000 to 3,897 in 2010. The average age is 18 years old.

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