Editor’s note: Testimony in this case includes offensive and profane language. NewsWorks is including it in the story as context necessary to understand the alleged crimes.
Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught walked along Chancellor Street en route to grab a slice of pizza one Thursday night in September when somebody in a group of passersby allegedly asked a question that sparked a life-altering confrontation.
“Is that your fucking boyfriend?” was the question, Hesse told a court hearing on Tuesday. He testified that he answered the question in the affirmative and got this response: “Oh, so you’re a dirty fucking faggot?”
With that, tempers rose.
Hesse said that he and Kevin Harrigan, the 26-year-old Warrington man who sat just feet away Tuesday in Courtroom 406, then exchanged shoves.
Those shoves led to a curbside melee in which the “terrified” couple was allegedly surrounded by Williams and a group of his friends.
“Everybody was yelling,” Hesse said. “Anything I could do to get us out of it, I was trying to do. I was horrified. A girl in a white dress was clawing at my face [yelling], ‘Fucking faggot. Dirty fucking faggot.'”
Hesse said he proceeded to swat Kathryn Knott’s “clawing” hand away.
That’s when the violence really escalated and group-member Philip Williams allegedly threw three or four punches that knocked Haught into semi-consciousness on the Center City sidewalk. His injuries required doctors to wire his jaw shut for eight weeks.
All told, the confrontation lasted two or three minutes.
After Tuesday’s oft-heated preliminary hearing before Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden, Williams, Knott and Harrigan were held for trial on felony aggravated assault and consipiracy charges.
By the time the hearing started around 10 a.m., the courtroom gallery was packed with family members and friends of the three defendants, and supporters of the victims, including state Rep. Brian Sims, the state’s first openly gay man elected to the legislature.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Barry called just two witnesses during the hearing, which lasted roughly two and a half hours.
First up was Geoff Nagle, who lives in a third-floor unit near the corner of 16th and Chancellor streets in Center City.
The 28-year-old testified that he was awoken by the sounds of screaming outside around 10:45 p.m., so he looked out of his living-room window and saw a group of about 10 people outside a Fed Ex office across the street.
He said he heard slurs being yelled and saw people pushing one another, a woman pointing her finger in someone else’s face, someone knock that hand away, a “drastic turn when punches were thrown” and, finally, “an individual [who was] punched a couple times laying on the ground.”
Nagle said that he called 911, snapped a cell-phone picture of the alleged assailants and then headed downstairs to find most of the crowd gone but for people tending to Haught.
“Blood was coming from his head,” he said of the scene outside.
Under cross examination by Harrigan’s attorney, Josh Scarpello, Nagle reiterated that he couldn’t identify the assailants from his vantage point.
He also testified that he heard, but did not see, the punches connect. Williams’ attorney Fortunato Perri Jr. then noted that the witness couldn’t discern from afar whether Hesse struck Knott in the face while knocking her arm away.
Victim takes the stand
Barry closed his preliminary-hearing arguments by calling Hesse, a tall, lanky man sporting a pinstripe suit.
He then spoke about getting frozen yogurt before heading down Chancellor to pick up a slice of pizza with his boyfriend of six or seven years.
Words were exchanged as the couple approached 16th Street, he said.
“He was talking like it was a joke [that we’re boyfriends]. Then, he went into tough-guy tone [so I said] ‘Maybe I am a dirty fucking faggot,'” said Hesse, who realized Haught had been caught up in the alleged violence when he saw “his head hitting the ground.”
Hesse suffered a black eye and swollen face from the punches he sustained.
Haught, who suffered a four-inch laceration on his face, was hospitalized for five days and had his jaw wired shut for an eight-week span during which he could only eat broth, Hesse said.
Arguing against the charges
Before Hayden’s held the case over for trial, the trio of defense attorneys argued against the conspiracy charge as whatever happened on Chancellor Street that night wasn’t pre-planned.
In fact, their argument went, it was a small tiff that exploded when the 6-foot 2-inch tall Hesse took physical action against Knott.
“He comes to their aid after a female is assaulted,” Perri said of Williams, who is believed to have knocked Haught out.
Barry was having none of their argument, though, hearkening back to Hesse’s version of how it all started: Slurs slung and a couple scared when they were surrounded by strangers.
“Gonna be an interesting trial in this case,” he said before Hayden upheld the assault and conspiracy charges and scheduled a Jan. 6 arraignment.
They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
The arrests came days after the confrontation, as the public used social media sites to help police identify the large group that crossed paths with the victims that night.
The incident brought attention to the fact that Pennsylvania’s hate crimes legislation does not cover those in the LGBT community.
In October, City Council approved a bill strengthening Philadelphia’s hate crimes law.
Correction: The chronology of events was off in the initial version of this story. It has been corrected. NewsWorks apologizes for the confusion.