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Stonington rallies in support of hotel assault victim, Black Lives Matter

Stonington — Almost 100 people rallied in front of the police department Sunday morning to demand justice for Crystal Caldwell, a Black woman who was assaulted by a white couple allegedly uttering racial slurs during a June 26 attack at the Quality Inn in Mystic.

Another protest about 3 miles away — this one in solidarity with the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and drawing at least 200 people — took place on Wadawanuck Square in Stonington Borough at noon. The violence toward Caldwell was also discussed at the borough rally.

Caldwell, 59, of Groton, a clerk at the hotel, has said a white New York couple called her an “old monkey” and told her “Black Lives Matter? Your life doesn’t matter, you don’t deserve to live on this earth,” while beating her after complaining about the lack of hot water in their room. Caldwell suffered a concussion, a swollen face and a badly injured right eye, along with injuries to her wrists and ribs and back in two separate attacks. All three people involved were brought to the hospital after the incident, as the couple requested treatment as well.

Video from the hotel shows a man punching, stomping and body slamming Caldwell to the ground. Police announced Friday night that they had obtained arrest warrants that charged the man with second-degree assault and the woman with third-degree assault. The couple remain at large and police have not yet released their names. Some have criticized police after the couple fled after being released from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital a few hours after the attack.

Those who attended Sunday's "Peace&JusticeRally4 CRYSTAL CALDWELL," which was organized by actress/activist RaéVen Kelly Dinwoodie in conjunction with The Peace & Justice Group of Westerly, were highly critical of the police department’s handling of the incident. The event began with call-and-response chants of “SPD, Wake up!” And “Say her name, Crystal Caldwell!”

Speakers included Kelly-Dinwoodie; her husband, Sean Dinwoodie; state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London; Caldwell’s nephew Wayne Rawls; Caldwell’s attorney, John Strafaci; and New London City Council President Efrain Dominguez, among others. Remarks were offered over the din of honking drivers, who threw peace signs and raised fists out of their windows. Some were not as friendly to the cause — several people shouted in anger and even raised their middle finger to those gathered.

“Even though we had some naysayers passing by with middle fingers lifted or screaming out obscenities, it is beautiful to know that we can send a message of hope to those people,” Kelly-Dinwoodie said. “They don’t get it. They’re ignorant.”

She added that the diverse crowd, which she referred to as an “ethnic mosaic,” is proof of broad agreement with Sunday’s demonstration, and that detractors will serve only to make activists more resolute.

The rally’s main objectives were to bring awareness of the violence against Caldwell; to procure an update from Detective Greg Howard, who has been assigned to the case; to hold police officers who responded to the hotel accountable; and to demand that Attorney General William Tong classify the attack on Caldwell as a hate crime and that the two suspects be extradited back to Connecticut and held without bail. The Chief State's Attorney's Office and not Tong has jurisdiction over criminal matters in the state.

While Stonington police also had included information in the warrant application seeking to charge the couple with intimidation based on bigotry or bias, the state’s hate crime statute, the state’s attorney’s office did not include that charge in the arrest warrants. Stonington police Capt. Todd Olson declined Friday night to discuss why the state’s attorney’s office came to that decision.

Kelly-Dinwoodie promised to hold demonstrations weekly until the goals are achieved and announced the formation of a new Westerly-Stonington NAACP chapter.

She urged attendees to watch the video of what happened to Caldwell if they could stomach it.

“Ask yourself, if that had been a 59-year-old white woman attacked by a young Black couple, using racist slurs, what do you think would have happened?” Kelly-Dinwoodie asked. “Do you think when her attackers exited Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, that they would have been apprehended immediately?”

The crowd responded with an emphatic “Yes!”

Most speakers accused Stonington police of mismanaging the case. They said the people who harmed Caldwell should not have been able to return to New York without being arrested or providing statements on June 26. They also said Stonington police took too long to obtain and watch the video of what happened, that the department took too long in getting a written statement from Caldwell, and that Caldwell’s claims weren’t taken seriously until police watched the video.

“This is a failure of our local police,” Sean Dinwoodie said. “We are not anti-police, but we are pro-justice.”

Nolan, who is also a New London police officer and Black, called out what he believed to be the “missteps” of Stonington police.

“As sad as it is to say, the Stonington Police Department got beat at their own game,” Nolan said. “When you wait for a person to come back to arrest them, and they figure it out, what happens? They get in their car, and scurry back.”

Olson has said police called the hospital and said a suspect in an assault was being treated in the emergency room and officers would like to come over to interview him and place him under arrest. Olson said police were told they should not come to the hospital due to COVID-19 precautions. The hospital has declined to comment on what police were told. 

Nolan noted that he’d been in the hospital with a COVID-19 patient in his capacity as a police officer. He said he asked Stonington police Chief J. Darren Stewart to make the officer who said he or she was not allowed in the hospital and the hospital employee who told the officer that to give sworn statements to that effect.

“A hospital employee can’t tell you how to do your job as a law enforcement officer. Someone should’ve been sent to the hospital to wait for the person,” Nolan said. “Stonington owes this family a public apology.”

Nolan said it’s possible that giving the perpetrators time to hire an attorney and come up with a story could undermine the investigation.

Caldwell’s nephew Rawls also addressed the crowd.

“I’m a Black man. If I attacked an older white lady with my Black wife or girlfriend, where would I be at right now?” Rawls asked.

“Jail!” the crowd replied.

“When I watched that video, I was literally crying my eyes out,” Rawls continued. “I haven’t done that in a long time. That really hurt my feelings, to watch that video. If that was me, I would’ve been handcuffed to the (hospital) bed. Or I would’ve been shot. SPD, I want answers! Give me the right answers!”

Strafaci, who attended New London High School with Caldwell, was biting in his comments about Stonington police, saying that if Caldwell had been a white woman, the department wouldn’t have been “as lazy” in its response. He charged that Stonington police, and specifically Olson, who authored the department’s initial news release on the incident, have lied repeatedly about the case.

“They did not take a written statement from anyone until the day after I called the chief yelling. No written statements were taken from any of the witnesses,” Strafaci said. “What’s even worse is this excuse — frankly, I think it’s a lie — that they were not allowed into the hospital. I have spoken with other police officers who have said they routinely go into the hospital.”

Strafaci brought up that Olson told The Day he and Stewart since have had discussions with hospital officials and were told that if police need access to patients in the future, they will be given access.

“Here’s what the Stonington Police Department is now saying — that they have clarified the policy at the hospital. Let me translate that into English: We got caught lying, and now we’re gonna make another excuse,” Strafaci said.

Strafaci praised the department for putting Howard on the investigation.

“That’s when the chief did the only thing right he’s done during this whole episode, which was assign Detective Greg Howard to the case,” Strafaci said. “He has done excellent work.”

On Sunday, Olson declined to elaborate on the department’s latest release. He said Stonington police respect people’s right to express their feelings.

The subsequent Black Lives Matter Rally, which drew Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and other government officials, organized by the Stonington Democratic Town Committee, hinged on more than mere solidarity with national protests against police brutality. The attack on Caldwell serves as proof of racism “in our backyard,” as Kelly-Dinwoodie put it.

Sean Dinwoodie, a white man, told a story about an experience his wife, a Black woman, had with Stonington police.

He said that while she was walking to a doctor’s appointment, Stonington police pulled up behind her and asked if the child she was with was her son. It was.

“'Ma’am, we got a call about a white baby that was abandoned. Are you sure this is your son?'” Dinwoodie quoted police as saying. “'What’s his date of birth?' At this point my wife became hysterical, crying in the pouring rain.” She gave them her ID, and they didn’t give it back, Dinwoodie said. Police threatened to call the Department of Children and Families, he added.

“They insisted on escorting her to the doctor’s office, and parading her in front of other patients and the staff, who were all appalled,” Dinwoodie said. Kelly-Dinwoodie added that her white therapist was able to retrieve her ID from officers.

Although George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by police were mentioned at the Sunday morning rally, the event’s focus always returned to Caldwell and bringing her attackers to justice.

“Crystal is the most wonderful person, happy, always trying to put a smile on your face,” Strafaci said. “Not that anyone ever deserves this, but Crystal would be at the absolute bottom of the list.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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