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Woman assaulted at Mystic hotel sued by alleged attackers

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New London — On the steps of her attorney's office in New London on Tuesday morning, Crystal Caldwell spoke about her ongoing recovery from the injuries she suffered last year when, police say, she was the victim of a racially motivated attack while working as a hotel clerk in Mystic.

Caldwell, 60, said she visits doctors and physical therapists four days a week and is still healing from the injuries to her wrist, back, ribs, head and eye.

Now, her attorneys said, she's also enduring the emotional trauma of being sued by her alleged attackers.

Philip Sarner, 39, and Emily Orbay, 27, of New York have been charged with beating Caldwell, who is Black, in an attack caught on surveillance video at the Quality Inn on Whitehall Avenue in Stonington on June 26, 2020.

This summer, Sarner and Orbay filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Caldwell, her son Jamel Caldwell and the parent company of the inn, bringing forth accusations that including that the racial element of the attack is a hoax.

The complaint, filed by attorney Kevin Smith of New Haven-based criminal defense law firm Smith and Pattis, refers to Caldwell's case as a "girl who cried wolf" scenario. The lawsuit alleges Caldwell and her son "cried wolf" by claiming the incident was racially motivated "to distract from their own criminal transgressions."

During a news conference Tuesday morning, Caldwell's attorneys John Strafaci and Josephine Miller objected to the "laundry list of claims" made in the civil suit, which they say is causing their client even more trauma from the attack.

Strafaci, who is representing Caldwell in the criminal case, said he thinks the lawsuit is a tactic in Smith's "playbook" used to "distract the public and everyone else from what his client did."

Miller said Smith is trying to "change the narrative" of the incident and convince people "to believe something other than what their eyes will see on the video."

In surveillance video footage from the hotel, Sarner and Orbay, who were guests at the hotel, can be seen pushing, punching and kicking Caldwell. Caldwell told police the couple called her a monkey while beating her, and told her that her life didn't matter.

The lawsuit alleges that Caldwell's claims of racism weren't made until June 30, four days after the attack. Caldwell spoke to The Day on June 29 and said she felt the attack was motivated by race.

In the lawsuit, Sarner and Orbay allege that Caldwell "manufactured false claims" to paint a picture of the couple as "racist thugs who hate African Americans."

The complaint alleges that Caldwell may have feared losing her job at the hotel, and so "leveraged the ascendant Black Lives Matter 'movement' in order to paint herself as a victim and the plaintiff as a racist, white-hood wearing spawn of Bull Connor," Smith wrote, referring to a former Alabama politician who supported segregation and opposed the civil rights movement.

Smith claims that Caldwell has tried to continually "terrorize" his clients. "She has waged a campaign of misinformation designed to destroy the plaintiffs' (Sarner and Orbay's) lives," he wrote.

He said his clients have been retaliated against for the crimes they are accused of. They "cannot appear in public without being confronted — sometimes violently — as racists and experience severe emotional distress every time they venture out into public," Smith said in the lawsuit.

In August 2020, two months after the attack, Sarner was charged with harassing Caldwell's attorney, John Strafaci.

On the day of the attack, Sarner and Orbay were staying in a room at the hotel, which is owned by Choice Hotels International Inc. According to Caldwell, Sarner called the front desk where she was working shortly before the attack and reported that their room had no hot water.

When Caldwell said she would have someone come fix it or could move them to a different room, she said Sarner became irate and swore at her. He said he was sending his girlfriend down to "kick her ass," so she hung up.

The civil lawsuit, filed July 19, 2021, outlines a similar chain of events: Sarner called to complain about a lack of hot water and then went downstairs to the lobby to speak with a manager. But according to the lawsuit, when Sarner and Orbay arrived in the lobby, Caldwell allegedly "bounded down the hallway" toward them and shouted, "I'm going to call my husband and you're going to get stabbed."

This confrontation, the lawsuit alleges, led to a physical fight in which Orbay and Sarner were hurt.

The lawsuit alleges that Caldwell, after the attack, used the Quality Inn computer system to access personal information about Orbay and Sarner that they provided in order to check into the hotel, and passed it along to her son, Jamel Caldwell.

It also alleges that earlier in the day, Jamel Caldwell had attempted to entice Sarner to come outside to fight with him.

Sarner and Orbay are suing for more than $75,000 in damages, according to the lawsuit, claiming that Crystal Caldwell was trafficking in personal identifying information, and accusing her, Jamel Caldwell and the hotel of common law negligence and inflicting emotional distress, court records show.

Orbay and Sarner were arrested in Brooklyn after a weekslong police search. They were treated for injuries at a hospital the day of the attack and then fled to New York. The Stonington police faced widespread scrutiny for their handling of the case.

Last summer, crowds gathered in support of Caldwell outside the Stonington Police Department, outside New London Superior Court and at Black Lives Matter rallies throughout the region.

On Tuesday, Caldwell was joined at her attorney's office by family members, her attorneys and activists who came to show support.

Cornell Lewis, a civil rights activist from Hartford, asked people to show their support for Caldwell during upcoming court appearances in her case. He said he and other activists are standing in solidarity with Caldwell, "to make sure there will be no more attacks on her physically or emotionally."

Sarner and Orbay are scheduled to appear Oct. 28 in New London Superior Court. Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard in the civil case in federal court in New Haven that same afternoon, according to attorney Miller.

Sarner faces charges of first-degree intimidation based on bias, second-degree assault, third-degree assault and second-degree harassment.

Orbay faces charges of first-degree intimidation based on bias and two counts of third-degree assault, according to court records.

t.hartz@theday.com 

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