A South Florida LGBTQ group came under sharp criticism this week after attendees of a gay pride gala in Hard Rock Stadium learned they had been joined at the event by an unlikely — and largely unwanted — bunch of visitors: four men accused of hate crimes in connection with the beating of two gay men after an annual gay pride parade in Miami Beach.
The board of directors of SAVE, a Miami-based LGBTQ rights and advocacy nonprofit, apologized Thursday to the gay community and the victims of the April 8, 2018, attack, which was captured on surveillance footage. The four suspects — Juan Carlos Lopez, Luis Alonso Piovet, Adonis Diaz and Pablo Reinaldo Romo-Figueroa — were charged last year under Florida’s hate-crime enhancement law.
Each of the young men was charged with three counts of aggravated battery committed with prejudice. All the suspects were 20 or 21 years old at the time of the attack.
They have pleaded not guilty, but police said Lopez and his companions called the victims maricones, an anti-gay slur in Spanish, before repeatedly punching the two gay men, Rene Chalarca and Dmitry Logunov, in the face. The punches briefly knocked out Logunov.
A witness to the attack, Helmut Muller, chased the men and was also beaten up. He sustained a gash to the back of his head that would require four stitches. Miami Beach officials honored him as a “hero” for helping the beaten couple.
So it came as a surprise to some members of the LGBTQ community in South Florida that the accused men attended the SAVE Champions of Equality Gala on June 14 — during Pride month no less.
Their appearance there was first reported by South Florida Gay News. The news outlet additionally reported that SAVE Executive Director Tony Lima announced from the stage of the gala that the men had been “wrongly accused.” Lima later said he didn’t recall saying that, but if he did, he apologized.
In a post to Facebook on Thursday, the group’s board of directors said it did not intend to “support, exonerate or justify the actions of these individuals” and that it would investigate the circumstances surrounding their appearance and any recognition they may have received from staff.
“We want to extend our deepest apologies first, to the victims, and equally, to the community for any insensitivity that may have been conveyed on our behalf by their attendance and mention at the gala,” the statement reads. “We are currently investigating this matter more thoroughly to determine the facts around the attendance and recognition of these individuals and will be providing an update to our supporters and the community at large as soon as we gather all the appropriate information.”
Lopez’s father, who is gay, said in an interview last year with NBC 6 that he does not believe his son acted out of animus toward the LGBTQ community.
The men have volunteered in a limited capacity with SAVE since their arrest and subsequent release, the group said. SAVE said the men were not invited to the gala and bought their own way into the event.
Lima apologized via a video statement on Facebook posted Friday night.
He said Lopez’s parents contacted him about six weeks ago to inquire about volunteering with the group. Each man volunteered about two to three hours each, and helped with data entry and some preparations. The men and Lopez’s parents bought tickets, he said.
Lima said he welcomed the group during the program but did not recall claiming the men had been wrongfully accused.
“If that’s what I said in haste, I apologize for that,” he said. “I am no one to pass judgment on the case.”
He said he acted alone and should have consulted with the board of directors.
In his video statement, Lima told the men it was positive they were “trying to support the community and trying to really rehabilitate themselves.”
“When I saw them at the event, I wanted them to feel welcomed and I wanted them to really be able to have the opportunity to engage with our community at a deeper level,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Miami state attorney’s office said the case remains an active criminal prosecution.
“We believe we have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the charges against them: Aggravated Battery with Prejudice/Weapon or Bodily Harm, Aggravated Battery, Assault with Prejudice/or on Religious Institution Grounds, and Assault,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “If that were not the case, the charges would have been dropped in the past.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.