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When Is A Hate Crime Not A Hate Crime?

A distinction for police is lost on the victim.

Photo of John Gaspari
John Gaspari in Ben Taub Hospital following the attack

A warning to our listeners: This story includes an offensive reference to LGBTQ individuals.

Texas has been the scene of horrific acts of violence that state and federal law class as “hate crimes.” But while investigating for our year-long initiative DiverseCity, News 88.7 found an unsolved case in Houston that raises questions about when the hate crime label applies.

It’s morning in Houston’s Fourth Ward, and a crew is hard at work repairing a street. On one side is Carnegie Vanguard High School. On the other is Wiley Park. A pretty typical Houston neighborhood. But here one night, two years ago, a vicious attack left a man gravely wounded. That man was John Gaspari.

“It was actually Valentine’s Day 2015,” Gaspari says. “I went out with a very good friend of mine, and her and I went to dinner.”

The two followed dinner with drinks. Then Gaspari waited until an Uber came to take his friend home. “I lived roughly seven blocks from where we were,” he says, “and it was a really nice night, so I decided to walk home.”

Gaspari had reached the high school when a white car zipped past him. “As I was walking toward West Dallas Street, they circled back around, and they actually tried to run me over,” he says.

The car missed Gaspari, jumped the curb on the east side of the road, and hit the iron fence at the edge of the park. “Once the car hit the fence, three guys jumped out of the car, yelled, ‘Get the fag,’ and came running after me. Came at me, got my phone, tackled me, shot me once in the chest on the right side. And I pretty much fell to the ground, and they shot me again in my back and left me.”

Someone nearby heard the gunshots and called 911. Gaspari woke up two days later in Ben Taub Hospital, registered as John Doe. The attackers had taken his wallet as well as his phone. He’d already endured a seven-and-a-half hour surgery. Doctors had to remove parts of his small intestine, colon, and bowel.

“Altogether, I had roughly five procedures and surgeries,” he says, “the last one being toward the end of October of 2015.”

Gaspari cooperated with the Houston Police Department to try to find his would-be killers. But he says trying to get any updates on his case was like pulling teeth.

“They had found the car that was supposedly stolen,” he says. “They had found fingerprints. They had found a pair of shoes in the backseat on the floor, covered in blood, which they asked me and questioned me if they were possibly my shoes or whatnot. I had to go and do a DNA test. They couldn’t get security images from the security cameras at the school. I know no more now than I did right after it happened.”

The most frustrating part to him? Investigators declined to label the case a hate crime.

“I think that anybody, you know, remembering the last words that your attackers come at you is, ‘Get the fag,’ I don’t know how that could not be considered a hate crime,” Gaspari says.

News 88.7 contacted the Houston Police Department to ask for an explanation. A spokeswoman said investigators had looked at classifying the attack as a hate crime. They decided not to because the pattern of the assault matched that of other robberies in the area. The spokeswoman said that despite the attackers’ language, Gaspari was likely targeted because he was walking alone at night. HPD has since run out of leads, and the case is now inactive.

Gaspari has largely recovered from his injuries. But he still suffers from nightmares. And every morning when he wakes up, he’s faced with a reminder of his ordeal.

“The hardest thing for me to deal with,” he says, “is having to look in the mirror every day and see this extremely large scar on my stomach that somebody else gave to me.”

Gaspari now lives in another state. He says he no longer felt safe in Houston.

 

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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