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N.Y. man accused of racial attack at Mystic hotel charged with harassing victim's attorney

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A New York man accused of a racially motivated attack on African American hotel clerk Crystal Caldwell on June 26 arrived in New London Superior Court for his arraignment Friday and was served with a new arrest warrant charging him with placing harassing phone calls to Caldwell's attorney.

Philip Sarner, 39, of Brooklyn was taken into custody after he and his 27-year-old girlfriend, Emily Orbay, arrived at the courthouse for their first court appearance on charges they attacked Caldwell twice at the Quality Inn in Mystic because they were upset there was no hot water in their room. 

Sarner was expected to post a $30,000 bond on the new charge of second-degree harassment, which is in addition to the $75,000 he posted after being charged with second-degree assault, third-degree assault and intimidation based on bigotry or bias.

On July 7, the day after Stonington police identified Sarner and Orbay as the couple shown beating Caldwell in hotel surveillance video, Sarner allegedly called attorney M. John Strafaci's New London law firm five times between 8:41 a.m. and 8:50 a.m. The longest call last 34 seconds. The calls were not recorded.

During one of the calls, Sarner allegedly told a receptionist who answered the phone, "John Strafaci, watch your back. You will be the next one," according to an arrest warrant affidavit written by Master Patrol Officer James Suarez of the New London Police Department.

The same person called back and left a message for Strafaci with Strafaci's son, attorney M. Joseph Strafaci, in which he mumbled, "If he loves Blacks so much he can (perform a sexual act on her.)," according to the warrant.

The other calls were hang-ups. The caller ID showed "anonymous," but after Stonington police served a search warrant on the number Sarner had provided them upon his arrest, phone records from AT&T showed the calls originated from Sarner's number.

Sarner also had used the number on the day of the hotel incident, to call New London police from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital to report he was being threatened by a group of people, according to the warrant.

As Sarner and Orbay arrived at the Huntington Street Courthouse on Friday, they walked by Caldwell, her attorney and about 40 supporters who wore "Justice for Crystal" and "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts, carried signs condemning racism, prayed together and chanted. Members of the groups Ray of Hope for Racial Equality and Peace and We Won't Stand Down said it was important to stand with Caldwell and to send a message that racism won't be tolerated in Connecticut.

"It is incumbent upon all of us to speak out when we see violent atrocities in our community, especially when they're motivated by hate," said Raeven Kelly-Dinwoodie of Stonington.

During the hotel attack, Caldwell said Sarner called her "an old monkey" and told her, "Your life doesn't matter."

The incident led to protests and criticism of Stonington police for not immediately arresting the couple following the incident. Sarner and Orbay returned to New York and could not be located for more than two weeks.

The initial charges announced by Stonington police did not include the hate crime allegation, but State's Attorney Michael L. Regan said the case remained under investigation and later added the bigotry/bias charge. Tamara Lanier, vice president of the New London branch of the NAACP, said she spoke with Regan about the hate crime charge.

Judge Hunchu Kwak continued the cases to Oct. 9 after issuing protective orders prohibiting Sarner and Orbay from having contact with Caldwell and attorney Strafaci, and their family members, and from going to the Quality Inn and Strafaci's New London law firm.

Attorney Kevin Smith of the Pattis & Smith law firm said prior to the court appearance that he couldn't discuss a defense because he hadn't received all of the evidence. He said the firm is representing both Sarner and Orbay and that he doesn't anticipate a conflict.

While arguing for a reduced bond for Sarner, Smith said, "We obviously would dispute the nature of the assault" and he noted Sarner had showed up for court. Sarner, who was linked to the courtroom by video feed from the lockup, tried several times to cut in and speak to the judge, but ultimately accepted Smith's advice to remain silent.

Orbay, who is pregnant, appeared only briefly before the judge.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney David J. Smith (no relation to the defense attorney) is prosecuting the case, and Victim Services Advocate Johanna Krebs will be supporting Caldwell throughout the process.

Strafaci said justice for Caldwell means incarceration of her attackers and reimbursement for her medical expenses, which she is expected to receive through workers compensation. Caldwell, who is 59, is retired and only worked part time at the hotel.

"We don't have plans for any civil lawsuits," he said.

Strafaci said Caldwell doesn't blame Stonington police for the assault.

"We're upset they didn't take it seriously, probably because she is a Black woman from Groton and not a white woman from Mystic," he had said.

Caldwell is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had her first appointment with a therapist on Thursday, Strafaci said.

Outside the courthouse, her supporters gathered in a circle around her and told Caldwell, one by one, how she has inspired them with her bravery and dignity since the attack.

"You have no idea that my strength is coming from you," Caldwell told them.

k.florin@theday.com

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