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Salt Lake County prosecutors are considering hate crime and assault charges against a pair of Wyoming men for an alleged attack on two gay men outside a Salt Lake City home a few days before Christmas.
The Dec. 21 assault began with of verbal volley of gay slurs, including explicit sexual references and was quickly followed by a physical attack that left friends Rusty Andrade and Maxwell Christen bruised, bloodied and emotionally shaken.
"We got jumped," Andrade told The Salt Lake Tribune. "There was nothing on our part to instigate it."
The two said they had just returned from a holiday party with Christen's boyfriend and had exchanged a goodnight hug outside Andrade's garage, near 300 West and 700 North, when the alleged assailants appeared out of the darkness just before 2:30 a.m.
"I let go and then these two guys were just standing there," said Christen. "They started calling us faggots … one of them pushed Rusty and then they hit both of us," Christen said. "It was just quick."
Among the slurs was a lewd question about oral sex, Andrade said.
Andrade said he was knocked to the ground and pinned by one man who hit him repeatedly in the face. The 24-year-old Christen, who is a Salt Lake Community College student, said he was also punched several times in the face before he was grabbed around the neck and thrown to the ground.
That's when Christen's boyfriend, Taylor Lamont, who also lives in the complex and had been parking his car, said he heard someone yelling gay slurs and ran out of his garage to see Christen on the ground. Lamont said he grabbed one man in a bear hug from behind and pulled him away from Christen, who then jumped up and tried to help free Andrade. A bouncer from the nearby nightclub, Club Jam, also heard the fight from across the street and came to their aid.
An account of the attack in a Salt Lake City police report says the two suspects returned to the complex to search for a lost wallet about the same time a patrol officer arrived in response to a 911 call. Questioned by police, both men said they couldn't remember any fight.
One man said he had been drinking at a bar and did "not remember what happened," the report states. He also said that if there was an altercation, that he was "probably involved." The man had abrasions and cuts on his face, but "could not remember how he got them," the report states.
The second man told officers that he "did not see any altercation and that he was not involved in any way," according to the report.
The men's names and identifying information are redacted from the report, though Salt Lake City police confirmed the two are from Wyoming.
Andrade suffered the more serious injuries, including bruising to his head and neck, along with what may now be a dead tooth. He's also suffered some memory loss.
"I remember getting hit and then I remember trying to get off the ground," he said. "I don't remember the rest of the fight."
Neither of the alleged assailants was arrested or cited, and the case was not initially investigated as a hate crime by the responding patrol officer, Salt Lake City police Sgt. Robin Heiden said.
"I don't know that the officer thought it was hate crime," she said. "I think originally he was thinking it was a simple assault."
It wasn't until a detective began a follow-up investigation and spoke with the victims a second time, Heiden said, that it became clear that a hate crime may have occurred.
Andrade and Christen both say they have no doubt about why they were attacked.
"Once the found out we were gay, it was absolutely clear why they attacked us. It was a complete hate crime," said Christen, of Sandy, adding that he felt helpless during the attack. " I feel like if I could have done something, I would have."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office is reviewing police reports to determine what charges might be supported by the evidence and, if necessary, would conduct a follow-up investigation. Gill said he's concerned about allegations that the victims may have been targeted based on sexual orientation.
"We are taking this very seriously," Gill said. "We would take that very seriously whether it was based on someone's gender, someone's religion, someone's culture."
It wasn't immediately clear Wednesday how soon a decision about criminal charges would be made.
Nationally, 5,928 hate crimes were reported by law enforcement agencies in 2013, data from the FBI's annual crime statistics report released in December show. Of those offenses, about 20 percent were motivated by a sexual orientation-related bias and most of the victims were gay men.
A Utah report prepared by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification for 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, shows the overall number of hate crimes dropped 29.31 percent to 58. Of those, fewer than 10 were motivated by sexual orientation, the report states.
Salt Lake City and county are places most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals generally feel safe, so the attack has sent a disturbing message to the wider community, said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah.
"When you attack one member of the LGBT community, you really attack all of us," said Williams, who notes the assault coincided with the anniversary of a court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Utah.
"That's the cruel irony of it. ... Biases still exist," he said. "We've had these amazing legal victories, but prejudice against us because of who we are is still pervasive in society. This is an ugly, brutal reminder of that."