The plan was simple enough: Anthony Fortunato and his friends wanted some pot, and Anthony thought he knew how to get it. He said he’d done it before, lots of times. He’d meet a gay guy in a chat room and pretend to be gay, too, then flirt a while and arrange a meeting, maybe in a hotel room, then take off with their pot and their money. This time, he and his friends would all show up. Either they’d smoke with the gay guy and leave—or, if the guy didn’t have pot after all, just take his cash and run.
Anthony and his buddies, John Fox and Gary Timmins, were hanging outside a deli on Emmons Avenue in Brooklyn that October night. He was 20 and living at home while he commuted to college, and he’d been killing time since the summer with John and Gary at the piers along Sheepshead Bay, where he’d helped them bait their lines to catch blackfish in the harbor that fed into the Rockaway Inlet. On warmer evenings, they’d prowl the quiet stretch of waterfront, grab a burger at the Roll-n-Roaster, and come through the iron gate that led to the backyard of ’Nato’s place. Most of the time, his mother would be asleep, and Anthony and the others would get high. That night, though, they were without pot or money, so Anthony had an idea: “Guys, you can get high with someone that’s gay, right?” he recalls saying. “You don’t have any problems?”
They didn’t voice any objections—pot was pot—and so they all went back to Anthony’s house, where he guided them on the computer into the corridors of AOL reserved for gay men in Brooklyn. They used John’s screen name, Fisheyefox. At the keyboard together, Anthony and John clicked on one of the screen names of guys already online, Drumnbase007, to ask for a link into the chat room. Then, before they even had a chance to set the bait, up popped a message:
Drumnbase007: yo do you blaze
If they doubted Anthony before, they sure didn’t now: A guy was offering them pot before they even asked.
yeahh i blazee madddddd, they replied.
Next came the introductions. Drumnbase007 wrote, where u at. When the guys typed sheepshead bay, Drumnbase007 replied, with an implied laugh, oh word not too far.
Drumnbase007 was typing from the other end of Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, in an apartment he shared with roommates. Michael Sandy was a 28-year-old African-American designer who worked at an Ikea on Long Island during the day and played in Manhattan clubs and online at night. He was alone for the night, and he was lonely, and he was looking to meet someone and share some pot, a common-enough currency for a social introduction. A half-hour later, he pulled up in his blue Mazda to the corner of Coyle Street and Emmons Avenue, three blocks from Anthony’s house. John walked up to the window first, affecting a lisp the way he thought a gay guy might. A moment later, Anthony joined John at the side of the car, faking a chance meeting.
“I’m Mike Sandy,” Drumnbase007 said as he and Anthony shook hands.
Two hours later—at about 10 p.m. on October 8, 2006—police found Michael Sandy lying unconscious on the side of the Belt Parkway, a half-mile from Anthony’s house, near the parking lot of a well-known gay cruising spot called Plum Beach. Two witnesses had called 911 from cars saying they saw two white kids fighting with a young black man on the highway, bringing two lanes of traffic to a halt before a beige SUV struck Sandy in the far-left lane. Five days later, the day after his 29th birthday, Sandy’s family removed him from a respirator and allowed him to die.
The Michael Sandy case had all the hallmarks of a Matthew Shepard–style gay-bashing—a robbery gone wrong with a crew of presumably lowlife homophobes to blame. “He was murdered because he was gay,” District Attorney Charles Hynes said five days after he died. Four young men from Sheepshead Bay were arrested and charged with felony murder as a hate crime. (Race was never a serious factor in the case, despite the fact that the victim was black and the alleged perpetrators were white.) But everything changed in court in September, when the lawyer for the alleged ringleader, Anthony Fortunato, announced in his opening statement that his client couldn’t be guilty of a gay hate crime because he, too, was secretly gay.
Suddenly, this was no ordinary hate-crime trial. And with the media and gay and lesbian advocates watching the case closely, the question of what really happened to Michael Sandy at Plum Beach now became complicated by other questions. Was Anthony Fortunato really gay, or was this just a ploy to undermine the D.A.’s case? If he was telling the truth, is a gay man even capable of committing a gay hate crime? And what, at the end of the day, is a hate crime, anyway?