A Hate Crime Haunts Jupiter And Its Latino Community
JUPITER, FLA. -- Onesimo Lopez-Ramos immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala -- one of the most violent countries in the western hemisphere. But even living in the quiet town of Jupiter, Fla., at the northern end of Palm Beach County, he couldn't escape lethal brutality.
The 18-year-old Lopez-Ramos was killed this past April, allegedly by three young white men who said they were targeting immigrants -- or "Guat-hunting" as one of them told police afterward in a disturbing confession.
Witnesses say Onesimo was getting home from work when Jesse Harris, his brother David Harris and their friend Austin Taggart began calling to him. They talked for a while. And then the three men allegedly attacked Onesimo with a blunt object, probably a rock. He died of injuries to the face and head.
The crime shocked residents in Jupiter, a town whose small population -- fewer than 60,000 -- is the opposite of what its name suggests. Equally alarming was the apparent motive.
Police Chief Frank Kitzerow said at a press conference that Onesimo's assailants "specifically targeted members of our Hispanic community." One suspect, Austin Taggart, told police he and the others were out "hunting" for Guatemalan migrants to rob and assault.
As a result, Kitzerow said Jupiter police would push for increased punishment for the crime.
"We are looking for the hate-crime enhancements in the penalty phase,” he said.
Florida doesn't have a statute designating a crime as hate-motivated. And the suspects have already been indicted for first-degree murder (all three have pleaded not guilty). But the state does allow a hate-crime "enhancement" that could add more time to their sentences if they're convicted.
The hate-crime designation was used in the murder of another Guatemalan immigrant, Lazaro Tista, in New Jersey in 2007. The men who were convicted of killing Tista with an aluminum baseball bat said they were out “Papi-hunting.”
“Papi” is slang for a Hispanic man. In other such murder cases assailants have used the term "beaner-hunting."
In Jupiter, other Central American immigrants say they have also been the object of hate crimes.
Outside Jupiter’s El Sol community center, a group of immigrant men tell me they’re sometimes harassed by “Americanos.”
But they’re undocumented immigrants, so they don’t risk reporting it to police. And they say they suspect the cops don’t respond as quickly to calls from immigrants, or maybe just don’t show up.
Joel Perez knew Onesimo Lopez-Ramos personally. They both came from the same village in Guatemala. Joel says Onesimo was a humble boy who worked two jobs at least 10 hours a day.
He thinks most Americans appreciate other cultures, but says he's been harassed on at least two occasions during his 10 years in Jupiter. Once, he was even chased by a pickup truck full of white guys.
"There was a shopping plaza where it's really dark, so they tried cornering us there, but my brother and I ran faster so they couldn't catch us," Joel remembers. "Then we were able to pick up some iron bars that were outside a house, and that's when they left us alone."
Another time, he watched as a group of white kids started a fight with his old roommates. He says the kids' parents were across the street, watching it go on, and that not even the police broke up the fight once they arrived.
"In reality, there's some of everything," Joel says, "because there are many Americans who love Hispanics. It's a matter of the level of education that they have, how they're raised at home."
The problem, Joel says, is that some parents just don’t teach their kids love and tolerance.
But Jupiter police insist they’re working to build tolerance among residents – and to create a better relationship with the immigrant community. The El Sol community center is part of that outreach effort.
Jupiter police spokesman Adam Brown cites the soccer games the center organizes. Cops trade their law enforcement uniforms for jerseys and chase the ball alongside local residents.
"You know, we just want to show the members of our community that we're more normal people -- good people just like anybody else and that we're approachable,” says Brown. “The last thing we want is for someone who is a victim of a crime to be hesitant to come forward and report it. All members of our community are very important to us, not just one segment.”
Police Chief Kitzerow credited that improved trust with helping the investigation of Onesimo’s murder.
“Over the years we here in Jupiter have fostered a great relationship with our Hispanic community," he said. "Those lasting relationships, and the willingness of people to come forward, played a significant role in this case.”
It will be a while before Guatemalans in Jupiter feel comfortable going out at night again. But pushing for Onesimo’s murder to be treated as a hate crime gives police more credibility in the eyes of that community.