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With gifts and gift cards, Mystic businesses show support for hotel assault victim

Mystic — At least 28 local businesses, mostly in downtown Mystic, have come together to donate gift cards, flowers, fudge, a massage and more to Crystal Caldwell, a Groton woman who was attacked while working at the Quality Inn in Mystic on June 26.

Caldwell, who is Black, says a white couple from New York called her an "old monkey" and said her life didn't matter. Stonington police have arrest warrants for Philip Sarner and Emily Orbay, respectively charging them with second-degree assault and third-degree assault.

The collection effort was spearheaded by Mystic Army Navy Store owner Michelle Gemma, who said she was outraged by the allegedly racist incident and felt compelled to do something nice for Caldwell.

"Something that we could do, as merchants that could hopefully bring Ms. Caldwell some immediate joy, is to entertain her with some fun shopping days with her and her family," Gemma said in an email.

She posted a message to the Downtown Mystic Merchants group on Facebook, at facebook.com/ThisIsMystic, and the effort got more traction after Sift Bake Shop co-owner Ebbie Young shared it on her page.

As of Tuesday evening, the gift cards alone totaled more than $1,300, plus other businesses donated items or services.

Barley Head Brewery donated a growler and two pint glasses. Owner Drew Rodgers said the outpouring of support "reinforces what I've always believed, that there are awful people in this world whose actions and words seem very loud, but for every one of them, there's hundreds of people who are good people and want to help if they can find a way to."

Hang the Moon owner Stephanie Marshall said the attack made her lose faith in humanity and "gifts and gift cards can only do so much — it's not going to erase what happened — but hopefully it gives her faith in humanity that everyone is not wretched."

Bank Square Books donated six books, stationery, lotion, soap and a gift card. Owner Annie Philbrick said Caldwell "needs all the support we can give her" and spoke of the importance of community. Lis Bake Shop owner Lis Stabach wrote in a note with her gift card that she was shocked and saddened by what happened, and the community is here to support Caldwell.

"She matters to me, and her life matters to me. I wanted her to know that," said Maggie Conley, a photographer who donated a photo session.

Gemma said more people contacted her about donating after seeing a Fox 61 report on her efforts Tuesday. She said people who wish to donate gift cards can drop them off at the Mystic Army Navy Store, open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., or call the store at (860) 536-1877.

On Wednesday afternoon, Gemma handed off the donations to Caldwell's attorney, M. John Strafaci, who said he would give Caldwell the gifts when she and her family stop by his office for a status meeting on Thursday.

"It's been absolutely wonderful — for Crystal, her family, as well as my office — to see the absolutely amazing outpouring of support, from not just the business community in Mystic but the general community in Mystic," Strafaci said Wednesday.

He said it "renews your faith in human nature and people, that you realize that the animals that did this to her are the exception and not the rule."

Asked how Caldwell is recovering from her injuries, Strafaci said she is seeing a neurologist, an eye specialist and an orthopedic specialist, and has been referred to a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist to help with nightmares and flashbacks.

But he said she's "a very resilient, wonderful, cheerful lady."

Strafaci said in the past few days, he's been directing efforts toward trying to get the state's attorney's office to add racial bias charges against the accused couple.

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: Attorney M. John Strafaci said he's been directing efforts toward trying to get the state's attorney's office to add racial bias charges against the accused couple. Information in an earlier version was incorrect. This version also corrects the spelling of Crystal Caldwell's name in the photo caption.

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