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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Trial nearing for couple charged with racist attack on Mystic hotel clerk

    Crystal Caldwell was joined by her lawyer M. John Strafaci and son Jammel Caldwell as they talk in Strafaci's offices in New London on Monday, July 13, 2020. (Sarah Gordon/ The Day file photo)
    A composite image of Philip Sarner and Emily Orbay who await trial in the June 26, 2020 assault of Crystal Caldwell at the Quality Inn in Mystic. (Stonington Police Department/file photo)

    The long-pending criminal case against a New York couple charged in what Stonington police have described as a racially motivated assault of a Black Mystic hotel clerk appears to be moving closer to trial.

    New London Superior Court Judge John M. Newson has scheduled a Jan. 16, 2024, hearing in the case of Philip Sarner and Emily Orbay in connection with the June 26, 2020, assault of Crystal Caldwell of Groton at the Quality Inn in Mystic. Caldwell was 59 at the time of the assault.

    The assault was captured on surveillance footage from the hotel, where Sarner, 39, and Orbay, 28, were guests. The video shows the couple pushing, kicking and punching Caldwell. Police, at the time Sarner and Orbay were arrested, said the couple resided in Nassau County on Long Island. They were captured by police in Brooklyn, N.Y.

    Caldwell also claims the pair called her an “old monkey” during the assault and told her, “Your life doesn’t matter,” a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.

    The Jan. 16 hearing is expected to focus on whether it is a conflict of interest for Norman A. Pattis, the attorney for Sarner and Orbay, to represent both defendants at trial.

    Orbay faces two counts of third-degree assault and one count of first-degree intimidation due to bias, a felony. Sarner faces charges of third-degree assault, second-degree assault and first-degree intimidation due to bias. Both have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

    The case has lingered at the New London Judicial District court since they were arrested on July 13, 2020. Orbay and Sarner, both free on bond, have rejected plea offers from state prosecutors in exchange for guilty pleas. Sarner was offered five years in prison and Orbay two years.

    The case inspired Black Lives Matter rallies in support of Caldwell, but also led to a lawsuit against Caldwell by Orbay and Sarner, who allege Caldwell “has waged a campaign of misinformation designed to destroy (Sarner and Orbay’s) lives,” the suit states.

    Stonington police said the confrontation started when, Caldwell claims, Sarner called the front desk of the hotel to complain that the room had no hot water. When Caldwell suggested she could have someone come to fix it or move the couple to a different room, she alleges Sarner became irate and swore at her, telling her he was sending his girlfriend down to “kick her ass.”

    The lawsuit against Caldwell alleges she instigated the confrontation, telling the couple she was going to call her husband and, “You’re going to get stabbed.” Caldwell denies the claim.

    Video surveillance footage showed Sarner punching Caldwell, pushing her to the ground and kicking her. Orbay also appears to hit Caldwell in the head. Caldwell’s lawyer, M. John Strafaci, said Caldwell suffered head and eye injuries, a concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has filed a counterclaim to the lawsuit against her, seeking damages associated with the alleged assault.

    Following the hotel assault, Sarner and Orbay, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, went to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for treatment of alleged injuries sustained during the incident. Stonington police were initially criticized for letting the couple leave the hotel without filing criminal charges.

    Sarner additionally faces one count of second-degree harassment after he was arrested two months after the attack for allegedly making harassing phone calls to Strafaci. During one of the multiple calls to Strafaci’s law firm, police said Sarner told a receptionist, “John Strafaci watch your back. You will be the next one.” In another message to the law firm, police allege Sarner can be heard saying “If he loves Blacks so much he can (perform a sexual act on her),” the arrest warrant states.

    Strafaci said Caldwell is still dealing with her injuries, but happy the case seems to be nearing a conclusion.

    “She’s a really great person and has a lot of family in support,” Strafaci said.

    Strafaci said his son, M. Joseph Strafaci, would handle her representation in the criminal court since he is considered a victim in the pending harassment case. He said this week that he couldn’t speculate on the reason for the delay in the prosecution of the case but agreed it appears to be nearing a trial.

    Pattis said this week that there are several factors that may have delayed the case, including a change in representation. Orbay and Sarner were initially represented by an attorney in his law firm who no longer works for him. Pattis said he suspects that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the delay.

    “The courts have struggled with the backlog and I think they are only now reaching deeper into their dockets,” Pattis said.

    Pattis said it is too close to a possible trial for him to comment on any details of the case.

    Caldwell was not immediately available to comment.

    g.smith@theday.com

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