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Protesters gather at Stonington police headquarters in support of assault victim

Stonington — Crystal Caldwell broke down in tears outside the Stonington Police Department on Saturday and then apologized to the crowd of 75 people gathered to support her.

“I’m so sorry you have to see my tears. I’m so sorry for my family. I just want us to get our lives back,” Caldwell said. “This has got to stop. We all have to live here together. We are all God’s children.”

Her words were met with cries of “don’t apologize” and “you have nothing to be sorry for.” Others faced the police headquarters to shout “do your job.” Caldwell supporters say the police handling of the case allowed the two suspects in her assault to escape police custody.

Saturday’s gathering was part of the backlash from what critics say is a bungled police investigation into the allegedly racially motivated June 26 assault on Caldwell, a 59-year-old Black woman, by a white couple at the Quality Inn in Mystic. Caldwell was working that morning when a hotel guest, whom police identified as Philip Sarner, 39, called the front desk to complain about a hot water issue. Caldwell claims he came to the front desk, confronted her and struck her in the head.

Shortly after, while Caldwell was attempting to get ice for her swollen head and face, Sarner and his girlfriend, Emily Orbay, 27, confronted Caldwell again. Security camera video shows Caldwell being punched by the couple, violently thrown to the floor and kicked by Sarner, who also allegedly shouted racial slurs at her.

Caldwell on Saturday said she is still healing mentally and physically from the attack.

Friends and family, many who showed up at Saturday’s rally wearing “Justice for Crystal” T-shirts, said they were sickened by the incident and want some accountability from police and answers about why the couple wasn’t immediately arrested.

After seeking medical treatment for supposed injuries suffered during the assault on Caldwell, who had tried to fight back, Sarner and Orbay retrieved their car from the hotel and fled. They remain at large and are suspected to be somewhere in New York.

“We are convinced that if Crystal was a 59-year-old white woman and her two assailants Black, they would have been arrested on the spot,” Caldwell’s lawyer, M. John Strafaci, said. He said the couple was not arrested despite “knowing the man had a history of violent assault and had been in prison, and was probably on drugs...”

Caldwell’s son, Jammel Caldwell, 27, of New London, said he is still shocked the assault happened, given his mother is such a calming person. She has always been a role model to him in the absence of a father and someone who in no way could have provoked such an attack, he said.

“I just can’t see why. I’m just sitting there every night wondering why,” he said. “I wish I had been there.”

Crystal Caldwell’s longtime friend Theresa Harper-Taylor said gatherings like Saturday's need to continue.

“It disturbed my spirits so bad to see her beat up like that,” she said. “She was treated worse than a dog. It was disrespectful, hurtful. It destroyed me. All I can say is we need to keep fighting for justice.”

Saturday’s protest, hosted by We Won’t Stand Down, comes a day after police announced that Orbay and Sarner, in addition to assault charges, will face more serious charges of intimidation based on bigotry or bias under the state’s hate crime statute.

The town of Stonington additionally has announced an outside investigation into how police handled the case.

Strafaci said he was skeptical of an outside investigation. He noted that, in a probe of how school officials handled years of complaints by students against former teacher and coach Timothy Chokas, the investigating attorney initially didn’t interview anyone because she said no one had contacted her about the issue.

“We’re not looking for another whitewash,” Strafaci said. “We know too much and have too many facts to show what went on.”

Strafaci maintains that police lied when they claimed they were told officers should not come to the hospital because of COVID-19 precautions in place.

“Let’s pray the U.S. marshals pick up these animals,” he said, referring to Orbay and Sarner.

g.smith@theday.com

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