By Sarina Trangle
Sikh leaders have made an Ozone Park hit-and-run part of their rallying cry for anti-hate crime policy changes.
But the driver charged in the July 30 incident claims authorities’ hate crime charges are completely misguided.
Prosecutors contend Joseph Caleca, a 55-year-old white man from Setauket, L.I., called Sandeep Singh, 29, “Osama” from the driver’s seat of a pick-up truck just after midnight July 30. He then allegedly struck Singh near the corner of 101st Avenue and 99th Street, dragged his body several feet and drove off, prosecutors said.
Caleca was arraigned in Queens Criminal Court Tuesday on charges of attempted murder as a hate crime, assault as a hate crime and leaving the scene without reporting an accident, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.
He allegedly admitted to authorities that he ran over the Sikh father, but denied Singh’s background played a role.
“I didn’t run him over because it was racially motivated,” Caleca allegedly told police, according to the criminal complaint. “Is the guy OK? The last I saw, he was conscious.”
Caleca’s attorney, Murray Richman, said his client is innocent and the hate crime charges came amid a highly charged atmosphere.
“It was not a hate crime,” Richman said. “The portion of the tape that supposedly shows the circumstances under which the incident occurred cuts off.”
Prosecutors and the Police Department corroborated the Sikh community’s description of the driver getting frustrated by Singh and his friends having a parked car door open and blocking his path.
After calling Singh “Osama,” Caleca then told him “Go back to your country,” according to witnesses accounts in the criminal complaint.
After engaging in a verbal argument with the men, Caleca allegedly drove into Singh and pulled his body across the pavement for several feet.
Singh, of Long Island, has spent weeks recovering in the hospital after undergoing stomach surgery due to internal bleeding and preparing for skin grafts on his back, according to his family.
But Caleca’s attorney said he was mobbed by a group of five young men who appeared to be intoxicated and attacked him and two cars behind him.
“My client’s car is blocked,” Richman said. “My client is not guilty.”
Singh’s experience spurred Sikhs into asking the FBI to get involved and saying the 102nd Precinct did not appear to be aggressively investigating the incident. Singh’s brother reportedly left the hospital after the incident to collect surveillance from bodegas for the NYPD.
At a meeting in Manhattan Aug. 14, the Sikh Coalition then had Singh and two fellow members of the faith who believe they were physically attacked because of their turbans share their stories. The national advocacy group argued the attacks show the NYPD should allow its officers to wear turbans and that the mayor should convene a task force to fight hate crimes.
“The NYPD is turning around and saying that we’re not sufficiently American to work as police officers in this city,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the coalition. “The NYPD, in our view, can’t protect us from bias if it is perpetuating bias.”
As of Aug. 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio had not answered the coalition’s written request for a meeting.
His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at [email protected].