Metro Transit Police are investigating a Gaithersburg man’s complaint that his longtime partner was viciously attacked and called anti-gay slurs aboard a Green Line train last month as the train operator ignored repeated calls for help.
Calvin Lawrence, 48, said his partner, Joseph Cowart, 43, was punched, kicked and called “fa----” repeatedly while being attacked by up to a dozen teenagers. The attack, which began near Fort Totten and continued four stops to the Shaw-Howard University station, started after Cowart attempted to intervene in the attempted robbery of a 14-year-old boy, Metro said.
Metro Transit Police did not classify the incident as a hate crime, despite claims that Cowart — a stroke victim with reduced motor skills — was targeted because of his disability and sexual orientation.
“The mere fact that during the commission of a crime that you get called a name doesn’t necessarily make it a bias motivation,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. He said Metro was sympathetic to the victims. “A bias motivation can be added by prosecutors when the case is papered if the evidence will support it.”
Stessel said the operator acted appropriately, adding that a train will not always stop immediately during an attack. In some cases, he said, the “train is going to continue to a location where the police can intercept it.”
The attack, first reported by the Washington Blade, began shortly after 1 a.m. Nov. 22 as Lawrence and Cowart took Metro home from a party in the West Hyattsville area. It left Cowart hospitalized and resulted in head trauma that set back his recovery from a stroke more than a decade ago, according to Lawrence, who is also his caretaker.
Lawrence said that Cowart stood up to intervene when he saw the 14-year-old being robbed of his iPhone. The boy “had a nosebleed and didn’t have shoes on,” Lawrence said.
At first, Lawrence said, an attacker mocked Cowart’s disability, mimicking his hand movement, which was reduced after a hemorrhagic bleed and stroke suffered in 2004. When Cowart began to speak, the attackers shifted their taunting to his sexual orientation.
“I was tired,” Lawrence said. “The next thing you know, I doze off a little. I see Joey standing up, going, ‘Stop, stop, stop that! Don’t do that!’
“Joey’s like, ‘Stop that! We have enough going on! We have ISIS to deal with — we don’t need to be fighting like this.’
“That’s when they switched from the handicap signal to the gay signal,” Lawrence said.
Cowart ran toward the train’s emergency call box and tried to explain to the operator that a teenager was being robbed, Lawrence said.
He said there were about 20 others in the car who didn’t do anything.
Cowart “was shocked that no one was helping this kid,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence signaled to Cowart that they should leave the train car or get off at the next stop. When Cowart tried to meet Lawrence at the door, a teenage girl grabbed him by his sweatshirt.
“Before I could get to him, the girl had pulled him down,” Lawrence said. “And out of nowhere, there were like 12 teenage youths on top of him — kicking, stomping.”
A female attacker, Lawrence said, was calling Cowart a gay slur and kicked him in the head.
“The one girl had said it twice: ‘Fa----, fa----,” Lawrence said.
Then one of the boys yelled it, he said.
According to the police report, a suspect approached Cowart and proceeded to “punch and kick” him in “the right temple, both knees, right shin and left ribs,” causing abrasions.
But it wasn’t until the train reached the Shaw-Howard University station that the train was stopped and police intervened, according to Lawrence. As the attack persisted, he ran onto the train platform to find a Metro employee.
“To the grace of God, I saw a female Metro worker, and I was screaming, screaming to them to stop the train,” he said. “She went around and yelled, and I heard the train driver finally turn the engine off, and I was like, ‘Thank God.’ ”
“I knew we were on our own, and if we hadn’t done that, I don’t know what would have happened,” Lawrence said.
The youths had fled, he said, presumably by passing through the train’s emergency doors to other cars.
Stessel said the operator acknowledged an emergency call and dispatched it at 1:18 a.m. Officers were on the scene by 1:23 a.m. Cowart was transferred to Howard University Hospital with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening, according to the police report.
Lawrence said that Cowart, his partner of 16 years, has been dealing with the afteraffects since the attack. One night last week, he suffered a panic attack that forced the pair to call an ambulance. The attack also has prompted visits to neurologists, who have told Cowart that he is susceptible to strokes.
And, he can’t ride Metro anymore, Lawrence said.
“He starts breathing heavy,” he said.
Cowart, who most recently worked as a cashier and ticket taker at the AMC Loews Rio Cinemas at Washingtonian Center, will have to undergo months of physical therapy, his partner said.
“We’re starting all over from scratch,” he said. “He was bouncing back. Life was looking good. But it’s funny how the rug gets pulled sometimes.”
Lawrence said that Cowart identified his attacker to police.
Stessel said the investigation into the attack remains open. Multiple people matching the suspects’ descriptions were stopped after the attack, but none was positively identified, he said.