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When Is a Hate Crime Not a Hate Crime?

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Michael Sandy, in Bellport, Long Island, in 2003.  

Anthony Fortunato is broad-shouldered and tall, at least six foot five, with a strong nose and high cheekbones, like the bust of a Roman soldier. But his buzz cut and baggy prison jumpsuit make him seem boyish and gawky, as if he hasn’t yet grown into his looks. He enters a fluorescent-lit visitors’ room at Rikers Island through a thick metal door and shakes my hand. As we talk, he smiles nervously, looking down shyly much of the time.

The inmates at Rikers recognize Anthony now. Some of them call him a faggot, others pat him on the back for a bravura legal-defense tactic. He isn’t sure how to handle the attention. One thing he wants to make clear is that he’s not the everyday juvenile delinquent he’s been portrayed as: When I ask, for instance, if he’s been sent to rehab while in jail, he jokes, “The correctional aspect of the Department of Corrections is quite lacking.” But he still seems defensive, even remorseful, about the decision he made, at the urging of his lawyer, to make his sexual identity an issue in open court. “If it was any other crime short of a homicide,” he says, “I would have preferred to take the time, without a doubt. I had no option, ultimately.”

Long before that night at Plum Beach, he says, his life had been heading out of control. He grew up in a traditional Italian family in a middle-class, increasingly Russian sliver of Brooklyn tucked between the Sheepshead Bay marina to the south and the Belt Parkway to the north. As a boy, he seemed like an exotic creature in his slightly rough neighborhood, into poetry and books and drawing. Most of the high-school kids near him went to Murrow or Midwood, but not Anthony. From the start, his parents—his father was a pharmaceutical-supply salesman, his mother a registered nurse—sent him outside the neighborhood to a parochial grade school and then to Xavier, an academically competitive Jesuit high school in Manhattan. He spent most of his time with his father, a gym rat who worked out five days a week and never smoked or drank—and who tried to toughen his pudgy son by pushing him to be a hockey player and a karate black belt. If he was gay, no one knew it. He had girlfriends, some of them serious, and a few male friends, though he never seemed to keep anyone around for long.

In 2003, at the beginning of Anthony’s senior year of high school, John Fortunato was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a kind of soft-tissue cancer, and as his father endured years of treatments, his mother says a new Anthony emerged. He stopped talking to his father for days at a time, argued with his parents, quit the hockey team, and started getting high at night in his backyard with a revolving cast of new friends. “We tried very hard to bring Anthony back,” Joan Fortunato says. But Anthony was over 18 and enormous; there was no one bigger in the house to face him down. He stayed close to home for college, attending Iona in New Rochelle for three months and then transferring to St. Francis, in Brooklyn, where his partying continued: His sister told his mother he’d moved on from pot to cocaine and ecstasy. Anthony’s mother noticed him burning his arm with cigarettes and writing on his books “Fuck my life” and “My life sucks.”

On January 26, 2006—nine months before that night at Plum Beach—Anthony’s father died. This—not his sexuality—is what he says was the defining issue of his life, the reason for his reckless choices. “At the end, I would come home, you know, drunk,” Anthony says. “My father had signed himself out of the hospital, and he wouldn’t be able to move at all … I told everyone to leave the room, and I was holding his hand, and I was just like, ‘Dad, I want to just tell you that everything is going to be fine. I’m gonna be able to take care of the family. I want to do justice by you and everything you taught me. I promise that I’ll pass it on to my little brother, and give him the opportunities you gave me.’ And he couldn’t even reply.”

Anthony started crushing up his dad’s OxyContin and snorting it. He took a whole bottle of his father’s Xanax, vomiting most of it before it could kill him. Weeks later, he wrote a note saying he was “going where the sea meets the sky” before disappearing overnight. Joan says police helicopters found him in a daze at Plum Beach, where he put up a fight and was cuffed and taken in a straitjacket to Coney Island Hospital. “But Anthony was clever,” says Joan. “He didn’t let the psychiatrist know that he had left a death note, that he was going to kill himself, and then the doctor released him.” In April, he and a friend were caught in his house, wired on coke and gathering his mother’s jewelry to pawn for more drugs. His mother brought him to rehab, then to a psychiatrist. Again, he dodged treatment. “Every time we’d bring him somewhere, he seemed to be able to sweet-talk his way out of it,” his mother says. “And then he’d come home and be good for a day and then start again.”


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