by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
The FBI announced on Tuesday it was monitoring a police investigation into the brutal murder of a young Gay man in Cayey, Puerto Rico.
Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was decapitated, dismembered, and his remains were partially burned on Friday, November 13. He was 19 years old.
On Tuesday, November 17, Puerto Rican police announced the arrest of a suspect in the case.
In a statement to Primera Hora Spanish-language news service, FBI spokesperson in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Harry Rodriguez said, "The FBI is monitoring this investigation with the Police of Puerto Rico because there are federal civil rights statutes that cover hate crimes."
Rodriguez referred to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act of 2009, passed and signed into law last month. The new legislation added real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes protections and authorizes the US Justice Department to investigate and assist in prosecuting hate crimes directed at LGBT persons.
"The FBI has the utmost willingness to provide any assistance or resources in this investigation, such as forensic analysis by the FBI laboratory, among other things, if requested by the police," Rodriguez continued.
INTERVIEW WITH FBI AGENT
Speaking to SGN by phone on Wednesday morning, November 18, Rodriguez said Puerto Rican police had not yet requested the FBI's assistance.
"At this point we're not directly involved," Rodriguez told SGN. "We haven't been shown any evidence. We are waiting for the outcome of their investigation."
Asked under what circumstances the FBI might intervene in the case, Rodriguez said, "There are several factors, but I can't talk on the record. We would certainly get involved if the police requested technical support or resources."
"For example," Rodriguez continued, "you've read the victim was decapitated. Well, the instrument that was used to decapitate him might have a nick or something that would leave a signature mark. And our lab can detect that and trace that back to a suspect."
"At this point, we know there is a suspect in custody, but we don't know if the crime is being investigated as a hate crime," Rodriguez said. "He hasn't been charged yet. I assume it would be charged as a homicide and I don't know if hate crimes would add anything to the penalty for homicide."
According to FBI Agent Rodriguez, Martinez may not face the death penalty if convicted, even if he is charged with a hate crime.
"There is no death penalty on the local level," he told SGN. "At the federal level, this crime would be death penalty-eligible," but that would apply only if the federal Justice Department intervened in the case.
PUERTO RICAN OFFICER BLAMES THE VICTIM
The Puerto Rican government added sexual orientation to its hate crimes laws in 2002. However, LGBT activists have complained that local police have not used it to prosecute those accused of anti-Gay violence.
Puerto Rican police became objects of widespread outrage when the murder became known, because of remarks made by one of the investigating officers.
Officer Angel Rodriguez (no relation to the FBI's Harry Rodriguez) told Las Noticias Univision TV reporters, "When these type of people get into this and go out into the streets like this, they know this can happen to them."
Puerto Rico's Civil Rights Commission and LGBT activist organization Puerto Rico Para Tod@s have asked the Puerto Rico Police Department to take disciplinary action against Rodriguez. The PRPD announced it was removing him from the case.
However, Director of Criminal Investigations Eliezer Colon Flores said on Monday, November 16, that Officer Rodriguez would be on the team of "best researchers" who would gather evidence in the case.
Local activists plan to protest outside the Puerto Rican capitol building in San Juan on Thursday, November 19.
PRPD Regional Director Hector Agosto said Rodriguez's words were misrepresented and that his intent "was not at any time to disparage the Gay and Lesbian class."
"In fact they are giving 100% to solving the case," he said.
According to Primera Hora, the suspect in the case was arrested at 11:15 p.m. on November 16.
Police also raided the suspect's home. In his backyard police found a wig, a burned mattress, a PVC water pipe that was burned, two knives which were the apparent murder weapons, and blood stains on the wall. Two vehicles were also seized as evidence.
Primera Hora identified the suspect as 26-year-old Juan A. Martinez Matos.
Martinez was formally charged with murder and weapons violations on the afternoon of November 18. Bond was set at $4 million.
Prosecutor Jose Bermudez said that Martinez confessed to picking up Lopez thinking he was a female prostitute. When he arrived at his apartment with the victim and discovered Lopez was a man, Martinez claims to have become enraged.
Prosecutor Bermúdez added, "[Martinez] claims that Steven tried to stab him, and that he therefore grabbed a kitchen knife and in a fit of rage stabbed, dismembered and decapitated the victim and later took his remains and left them in Guavate area of Cayey."
The Prosecutor indicated that he will request that this offense be treated as a hate crime.
As he left the court after being charged, Martinez passed by the victim's father. He paused to ask forgiveness.
"I already forgave you; you should ask God to forgive you," the victim's father reportedly replied.
The victim's father also spoke with Officer Rodriguez, who had been criticized for his apparently homophobic comments early in the investigation.
"Thank God that justice has been served," the father said to Rodriguez.
STATEMENT FROM PUERTO RICAN ACTIVIST
Pedro Julio Serrano, the executive firector of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s and Communications Manager for the NGLTF, issued the following statement:
"Even when everyone is innocent until proven guilty, it is hopeful that they have arrested a suspect. We're grateful for the police work that has acted promptly and we trust that the investigation digs into the hate crime angle and if it is proven that it was indeed bias-related, that the criminal is processed to the full extent of the law."
"We urge the media and the authorities not to judge the victim, but the criminal who committed this horrendous crime. Even if there are particular circumstances in which this crime was committed, we have to keep the attention where it deserves to be: a young Gay man was brutally murdered by someone who did not have any compassion or respect for the dignity of a human life."
"In the 12 years of activism I've been involved in Puerto Rico, I have never seen the anger, the indignation and the pain and shock that I've seen with this," Serrano added.
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