Gay Immigrant Dead in Queens

Family awaits cause of death report while boyfriend suggests foul play

Guillermo Sanchez, a 21-year-old gay immigrant from Mexico, was found dead in Flushing Meadows Park the night of November 30. To all appearances, the young man had hung himself with a scarf from a tree, but Paul Priore of Queens, Sanchez’s boyfriend, questions if the young man committed suicide or foul play accounts for the death.

Monday evening, police officers in the 110th Precinct questioned Priore for several hours after Sanchez’s body had been discovered. Police officials refused to speak on the record, but apparently as of the time of Priore’s interrogation, the police were unsure whether the death was a suicide or murder.

“The cops interrogated me for three hours,” said Priore. “They were detaining me and I asked them, ‘If this is a suicide, why are you keeping me?’” Priore said he was unable to reach his lawyer when detectives said that he could call him. Eventually, the police released Priore and he returned to the house where he lives with his father.

The death was first reported on December 2 by Hoy, a Spanish-language daily, which featured a front-page article and a picture of a smiling Sanchez. The paper reported that the young man had hung himself, but in the December 3 edition, an article referred to the “supposed” suicide of Sanchez and said the case had gotten more complicated.

The paper reported that a secret letter had been found on Sanchez at the time of his death that, according to Priore, was written by an attorney in Boston representing a man there. According to Priore that man is a groundskeeper assaulted by Jeff Nelson, a Yankees pitcher, during a melee that occurred on October 11 in the heated American League series game between New York and Boston.

Paul Williams, a part-time groundskeeper, was cheering for the Red Sox in the Yankees’ bullpen when Nelson appr-oached him and asked him to stop. A fight broke out in which another Yankee reliever, Karim Garcia, jumped in. Both Yankee players have been charged with misdemeanors.

Nelson is also the defendant, along with two other Yankee pitchers, Mariano Rivera and Bob Wickam, who has since been traded, that Priore named in a 1998 lawsuit alleging anti-gay discrimination. At the time, Priore was an assistant equipment manager in the Yankees clubhouse, a job he had since he was 16, mostly on a volunteer basis, with his dad who was then clubhouse manager. In 1997, Priore was fired, only one year after officially being on the team’s payroll, after an FBI investigation uncovered that he stole uniforms and mishandled official bats. The team’s general manager, Brian Cashman, said that Priore was trading team T-shirts and equipment with bartenders and vendors in retail establishments around Yankee Stadium. Priore has maintained his innocence in the theft charges.

In the 1998 lawsuit, Priore alleges that as well as being harassed and fired because he is HIV-positive and gay, he was sexually harassed by Wickam who exposed himself to Priore and rubbed his penis against him.

The initial case was thrown out of court. This past June, a state appellate court denied Priore’s attempt to revive the case.

Priore said that he had not read the letter that detectives said was in Sanchez’s possession at the time of his death, but police told him that the letter contained the case number of his Yankees lawsuit. He surmised that Sanchez might have written the letter in order to help him.

At another point in the conversation, however, Priore said that he and Sanchez had never discussed the court case. He also said that he had taught Sanchez to read and write in English and that Sanchez “was a fast learner. He learned the computer and he was even better than me.”

As of press time, the medical examiner had not issued a report on the cause of death. A spokeswoman for Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said, “The investigation is continuing and we are awaiting the medical examiner’s determination as to the cause of death.”

According to Priore, Sunday evening began with a dinner and movie. “We saw ‘Bad Santa’ at Bay Terrace and I was going to drive him home. He needed to go to the bathroom and he didn’t like public toilets because of bugs and germs so I drove him to the park and he went to the bathroom in the bushes.” Sanchez then became despondent, according to Priore, as he complained about how his father had treated him growing up. Priore said that Sanchez became agitated and walked off and sat on a bench near some children playing soccer. “I figured I’d wait five minutes and see if he came back,” said Priore, who acknowledged that he and Sanchez had argued before during their 18-month relationship with Sanchez threatening at times to break up with him.

After 15 minutes, Priore said, he left. The time was 6:15 p.m. “I drove past the tennis courts and saw Alex’s car,” said Priore, referring to another gay man who was a mutual acquaintance of his and Sanchez’s. “I figured Alex took him home and he was pissed off at me for pressing him on his father.”

Priore acknowledged that the place in the park where he and Sanchez last saw each other is a known as a gay cruising area.

Priore said that he was devastated over the loss of Sanchez. That Sanchez was hanging by a scarf, said Priore, raised suspicion because when Sanchez left him he only had gloves with him, no scarf.

“He wasn’t an alcoholic. He wasn’t a drug addict,” said Priore about Sanchez. Priore said Sanchez had been depressed several times in the past but “if he was on medication or anything, he didn’t tell me about it.”

In an added twist to the case, Priore said that he was an activist who for years had lobbied police officials to make Flushing Meadows Park a safer place. “I’ve been advocating for that park for years in terms of drugs, alcohol, pedophiles, and the corruption of the park administrator.”

According to an anonymous source, the park administrator, Estelle Cooper, applied for an order of protection against Priore after he approached her in the park and became belligerent when she was walking with former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. As the assistant commissioner, Cooper is the second highest-ranking parks official in Queens. As of press time, Cooper could not be reached for comment.

“With me being persistent,” said Priore, “the park was getting better.”

Priore has made a name for himself as a gay activist and political aspirant. In 2001 he managed the City Council campaign of Martha Flores-Vasquez who was eventually thrown off the ballot in the Democratic primary when her opponents, including John Liu, who went on to win the seat, successfully challenged her petitions.

Flores-Vasquez is now the female district leader in the 22nd Assembly district. At the time of her council run, community organizers denounced Flores-Vasquez for what one source described as her “anti-immigration platform.”

Meanwhile, the Sanchez family is preparing to send Guillermo’s body back to Mexico for burial. According to Priore, Sanchez lived with his sister, brother-in-law and brother, none of whom knew he was gay. They are preparing to claim the young man’s body from a city morgue. “I want to have the community help raise funds for the burial,” said Priore. “The family also wants to go where his demise was to conduct a ceremony,” he added.

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