Killing of immigrant reveals culture clash Five teens charged in beating death of Laurel resident

September 18, 1998|By Jamal E. Watson and Jim Haner | Jamal E. Watson and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke and Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

Kelly Martin's bedroom does not look like the den of a suspected killer. Painted a pastel blue and strewn with the wardrobe of a typical 18-year-old high school student, its most prominent feature is the portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King hanging on the wall.

"Dr. King is his hero," says Martin's older brother, Kennith, 21. "He didn't believe in violence. I know he didn't do it. He only had two classes left before he graduated."

But in a case full of mean ironies and sad coincidences, the Laurel High School senior sits in the Prince George's County Detention Center -- charged with four other teens in a brutal midnight gang assault Sept. 4 on a 35-year-old Salvadoran immigrant struggling to forge a new life in the U.S.

Gilberto Hernandez, a father of five daughters who worked long days as a dishwasher in a Laurel restaurant so he could send money home to his family, died four days later of what police described as "massive internal injuries to the victim's head and brain."

The death of the one-time farmer from Santo Domingo outside a manicured garden apartment complex behind the Laurel Centre Mall on U.S. 1 has torn this blue-collar town of 20,000 people. The hurt is all the worse because two of the teens charged are members of the Laurel High School Spartans football team.

In a community trying to make room for a recent influx of Hispanic immigrants, it also underscores a recent clash of cultures between the newcomers and longtime residents in what has historically been a well-integrated enclave of white and African-American families.

"We have never had any experience of this kind before, and certainly never something as brutal as this," says Jim Collins, a spokesman for the the Laurel Police Department. "We have had some tensions in recent years, mostly involving juvenile males, in which racial epithets have been used. But, God, nothing that would lead anybody to expect something like this."

At the Middletowne Apartments on 4th Street, near where Hernandez was found unconscious on the sidewalk with blood coming from his ears two weeks ago, residents coming and going across the lush, tree-lined courtyards agreed.

"The problems in Laurel have never been between blacks and whites," says Benny Benefield, 54, a sheet metal worker, echoing his neighbors. "Even when the Hispanic families started moving in, things were OK for a while. But lately, well, the place is different. There's been more fights between the kids, more trouble."

While Laurel remains one of Maryland's safest communities -- with just two homicides in the past three years and no reported incidents of hate crimes -- police say recent attacks on Asian and Hispanic immigrants have been a matter of concern to the department.

"This is a big problem," one officer said yesterday. "They tend to bother Asians, Latinos and other immigrants because they know they won't report it."

Leaving work

It was against this backdrop that Hernandez left work shortly before midnight on Sept. 4 with two friends from the Four Seasons Buffet restaurant, where he routinely worked 12-hour days for $5.50 an hour, and began walking down the 14000 block of 4th St. toward their homes nearby.

Suddenly, police say, the three men were confronted by five knife-wielding youths demanding money. Hernandez and his friends bolted, but the gang of teens ran him down and overwhelmed him. After knocking Hernandez to the pavement, they began to kick and stomp him in the face and head, police reported.

Jaime Hernandez, Gilberto's uncle, said he and other relatives were inside when they heard a sound like a car crash.

They ran out to find Gilberto Hernandez lying on the ground and a group of young men jumping into a car and driving off. Jaime Hernandez and another relative lifted his nephew's battered body into a car and drove 20 minutes to Laurel Regional Hospital, turning repeatedly in their seats to ask him questions to see if he was still alive.

"He wasn't saying anything -- nothing," his uncle said yesterday.

At the hospital, doctors quickly assessed Hernandez's condition critical and ordered him evacuated to Med-Star Trauma Center in Washington, D.C., where he died four days later of internal bleeding and brain injuries.

The day after the attack, court papers allege, a co-worker of Hernandez who had escaped the night before was on his way to the restaurant when he spotted the teens walking down the street and called police.

High school suspects

Detectives, supported by dozens of patrol officers, then stretched a wide net, interviewing scores of juveniles in the neighborhood before tracing the suspects to Laurel High School. There, on Sept. 9, during the noon lunch recess, they rounded them up.

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