A surveillance image of the suspect.
It was very early on Thanksgiving, about 1:20 in the morning. While most of Woodhaven was asleep, the home security camera quietly kept an eye on the street in front of the homes on 80th Street near 89th Avenue.
A man skulks outside the gate of one home. He’s wearing a baseball cap and a jacket and it appears, as he walks off camera, that he’s pulling a travel bag on wheels.
The street seems quiet again, but a few seconds later the man returns, quietly pushing open the gate and carefully walking into the front garden. He bends over and you can see him fiddling with something and the next thing you know, there’s a bright glowing light on the ground.
He stands up and waits a moment, and when he’s sure that his job is done, he quickly makes his way out of the yard. He’s not running, but he’s certainly not hanging around to see what happens next.
And what happens next shouldn’t happen to anyone in our community. The glowing light turns into a large conflagration. At the center of the fire are over three dozen Jhandi flags, which are colorful symbols of the Hindu faith.
Thankfully, some neighbors saw the flames and called the FDNY who came and snuffed out the fire before it could spread to the house. There were no injuries, but that doesn’t mean that this heinous act didn’t leave any wounds.
It’s a replay, of sorts, from last November when two drunken louts were caught on video in the early morning hours vandalizing a wreath at our memorial to the young men of Woodhaven who perished in World War II.
That act was committed by two young men under the influence of a whole bunch of alcohol. And when people are drunk they do impulsive and stupid things.
This man last week was not a drunk kid pulling a stupid prank on a whim. This act appeared to be premeditated. It was carefully executed. And one has to assume that the target, the Jhandi flags, were chosen for a reason. And that is why this is being investigated by police as a hate crime.
The video last year of the two drunken dolts led to their arrest. In that instance, the crime was committed outside of a well-lit bank on one of the busiest intersections in Woodhaven. One with several cameras pointed at the street. Not only were these two guys drunk, they were very stupid. Their faces were very visible and they were soon apprehended.
In this instance, the video is a little darker. But you do get a pretty good look at the creep who set fire to the Jhandi flags. One thing to keep in mind: rarely, if ever, do people watch a video like this and then see a guy on the street and say "It's him, that's the guy!"
Typically, you look at the video and recognize the guy because you know him already ("Hey, that's the nut who lives down the block"). In those cases, you don't always need to see their face. Think about it, when one of your neighbors is a block or two away, walking towards you, you don't need to see their face in detail to recognize them.
You recognize him because of the way he's dressed, the way he walks, his size, shape, etc. Or maybe, in this case, because of the travel bag he carries. That's how they caught the two guys from last year. Someone who saw the video already knew them.
So, take a moment to seek out this video online, and see if you recognize this guy. We're hoping someone will look at this video and say "Hey, that's the nut who lives down the block! The one who’s always dragging that bag around."
Lastly, we can never let the hateful and abhorrent acts of individuals define our community. Instead, our community is defined by the way it responds to hateful and abhorrent acts.
And so, on Thanksgiving 2015, we find reason to give thanks to the good neighbors of 80th Street, who acted quickly and called the Fire Department, thus preventing a terrible story from turning tragic.
We are thankful for the good neighbors who came forward and reached out to the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association and provided the police with the surveillance video that, we hope, will bring this arsonist to justice.
And we’re thankful for the fact that despite there being so much anger and hate in the world today, that there’s still much more love in people’s hearts. And that’s how our community should be defined.