A Black man was killed when a white man struck him with a pickup truck during a racially charged road rage encounter last week.
The deadly affray occurred Jan. 19 in Belmont, Massachusetts, a sleepy suburb just outside Boston. Witnesses saw Dean Kapsalis hurl racial slurs at Henry Tapia, a 35-year-old Boston father of three, moments before he ran Tapia over with his Dodge Dakota, dragging him a short distance and leaving him for dead. Paramedics treated and rushed Tapia to a nearby hospital where he died.
Kapsalis, 54, initially fled the scene. He turned himself in at the Belmont Police Department about 30 minutes later. Authorities charged the white Hudson, Massachusetts, man with a civil rights violation causing injury, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury, and leaving the scene of a crash.
“We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that is rooted in racial bias and meant to discriminate,” Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan told reporters during a Jan. 20 press conference. “Because it is not only the victims and their families who suffer, it is all of us.”
The hate crime Kapsalis faces carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Ryan said the investigation is still ongoing. Massachusetts State Police are reconstructing the crash and analyzing evidence. The DA suggested more serious charges could be forthcoming.
“It is possible that there will be other charges and it is also possible that there will be an enhancement of some of those other charges with respect to civil rights violations,” Ryan said.
The tragedy disrupted the quiet of Belmont, devastating and sparking outrage among the small town’s citizens. Hundreds turned out Thursday to commemorate Tapia’s life during a community vigil less than a mile from the fatal crash, according to WBUR Boston.
A family friend told the NPR affiliate Tapia was just a block from home when the tragic ordeal unfolded. The man’s younger brother David Tapia said he wasn’t surprised the level of violence may have been motivated by racism.
“I feel like if it was police brutality, it would be nationwide — like, ‘Oh, another African American male got shot,'” he said. “But this time, another racist civilian attacked another Black Latino — an Afro-Latino — and I feel the word isn’t getting spread enough. It’s another racist act.”
Henry Tapia’s children and life partner Courtney Morton also attended the vigil Thursday.
“”I will die being the love of his life,” Morton told WBUR. “And I will fight for him, because he couldn’t continue to fight from all the damage done. He’s my rock and I’m going to show him that I’m going to be the soldier he wanted me to be.”
The couple were working toward buying their first home together when Henry Tapia died, according to boston.com. A GoFundMe page set up on Morton’s behalf had raised more than $128,000 in just three days by Sunday.
According to the District Attorney’s office, Henry Tapia and Kapsalis locked horns shortly before 4:22 p.m. Ryan said they had no previous history and their dispute simply appeared to be a “tragic encounter in traffic.”
Both men got out of their vehicles and began arguing on Upland Road. Witnesses told investigators Kapsalis unloaded racial slurs as the verbal altercation appeared to be ending and Tapia was walking back to his car. News reports indicate Kapsalis called him the N-word.
Kapsalis got back into his pickup truck and intentionally barreled toward Tapia, who was standing at the driver’s side door of his Honda Civic, according an official statement. Kapsalis dragged Tapia a short distance before fleeing the scene.
Tapia was still conscious when police arrived to the scene minutes later, but it was evident that his injuries were life threatening. Paramedics spent about 17 minutes trying to stabilize him at the crash site before transporting him to Massachusetts General Hospital. Tapia died there a short time later, according to Ryan.
The district attorney noted an increase of such racially motivated incidents across the country over the past year and said Kapsalis’ slurs were “meant to intimidate and threaten” Tapia.
“We are reminded that incidents like this, that are allegedly born of hateful speech, have a lasting impact on families, friends and our neighbors here in this community,” she said.
Kapsalis was arraigned in Cambridge District Court on Jan. 20 and pleaded not guilty. Judge Robert Harnais ordered him to held pending a dangerousness hearing, which will determine whether he’s a danger to society. That hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday.
“Particularly at this moment, at this time, to have an incident of this nature happen in what is such a warm, welcoming community is jarring,” Massachusetts State Rep. David Rogers said. “It’s shocking. We condemn it with the strongest possible terms. And our heart goes out to the Tapia family.”