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Homeless pair charged with murder in park

Gabriel Vargas holds a photo of his brother, Ruben Vargas, who was killed in Astoria Park. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Nathan Duke

A transient couple who had been sleeping in Astoria Park were charged last week in the robbery and murder of a 32-year-old Astoria man after they allegedly strangled him with a shoelace and kicked him, the Queens district attorney said.

The duo allegedly strangled Ruben Angel Vargas, 31, who lived on Welling Court in Astoria, with a shoelace and kicked him to death at the park in the early morning July 7, Queens DA Richard Brown said.

Thomas Donovan, 31, and Kelly Harnett, 28, were arraigned last Thursday before Queen Criminal Court Judge Suzanne Melendez on charges of second-degree murder, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon, the DA said. The defendants, who were held without bail, could face up to 25 years to life in prison if convicted.

They will return to court July 22.

“The defendants are accused of a brutal and violent attack in which they choked, beat and kicked their victim to death before robbing him of his wallet,” Brown said. “Such a wanton act of violence cries out for justice.”

The victim’s sister, Maria Vargas, said her brother had moved from Mexico to Astoria with his family nine years ago.

“He was the type of guy who would be an example for everyone,” said Maria Vargas, who was one of the victim’s four sisters. “He was friendly, a family guy. He never got into trouble.”

Donovan’s last known address was 565 162nd St. in Manhattan, while Harnett was previously living at 20-41 Shore Blvd. in Astoria. The couple had been sleeping for several nights at Astoria Park prior to the incident, the DA said.

Ruben Vargas had been walking near the Hell Gate Bridge at Ditmars Boulevard and 19th Street just before 4 a.m. when the couple allegedly attacked him, Brown said.

The duo is accused of choking Vargas both manually and with a sneaker shoelace, as well as repeatedly kicking him about the head and torso, the DA said. As the victim lay motionless on the ground, the couple is alleged to have stolen his wallet and fled the scene.

Donovan and Harnett were arrested in the park a short time later. Vargas was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency responders.

Astoria is usually considered a safe community, but Vargas’ murder is the fifth homicide of the year. In 2009, the neighborhood’s 114th Precinct reported four murders for the entire year.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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