Gay bashing? Hedge fund manager to appeal

The complainant said he was the victim of a hate crime against gays. The defense called it a case of mistaken identity. And the judge ordered children to leave the courtroom because of the profanity-laced testimony, before he sentenced an investment manager to 10 days in jail for assault and battery.

Sanjiv "Sonny" Bhatia, CEO and managing partner of Enhanced Investment Strategies, vows to appeal his conviction and denies that an encounter at a Downtown Mall t-shirt table was anything more than a political discussion.

"I have a business," says Bhatia. "I have three beautiful kids. No way I'm going to jeopardize that by calling someone 'faggot' on the Downtown Mall."

Approximately 20 people showed up in Charlottesville General District Court December 9 to support Byron Harris, who brought the charges against Bhatia.

Harris, at times struggling for composure, testified about his encounter with Bhatia around 8:30pm as he walked his dog on the Mall October 29. Harris was chatting with Mac Schrader, who manned the "Reeject Bush" enterprise near Central Place for much of the year, when Bhatia and his party approached the table and exchanged words with Schrader over his anti-Bush t-shirts.

Harris and Schrader crossed paths with Bhatia again when he came out of the Blue Light Grill. Harris testified that he ignored a voice that said "F*** Reeject Bush," but his head jerked around when he heard "Godd*** motherf****** faggots."

Harris told Judge Robert Downer that when Bhatia asked, "Who's the last man you f***** up the a**?" he pulled out his cell phone and the defendant said, "Call the f****** cops."

According to Harris, Bhatia grabbed him by the lapels and "bonked" chests. Leaning up against a storefront, Bhatia pulled his zipper down, Harris testified, and said, "You want this thing? Come and get it."

After taking a deep breath, Harris continued his testimony. He said he called the police and watched Bhatia and his friends walk down Second Street to the Water Street parking deck.

"I was extremely frightened," Harris told the court. "I was extremely shaken. I couldn't believe this was happening to me as a middle-aged adult."

Police arrested Bhatia on the third floor of the garage.

Prosecution witnesses Mac Schrader and Gennard Dunfee, manager of the Blue Light Grill, supported Harris' account of the exchange.

Bhatia's lawyer, James E. "Bud" Treakle– who counts DMB manager Coran Capshaw and last year's mysterious St. Charles Avenue hit-and-run driver among his clients– repeatedly pointed out that Bhatia and another member of his group were similarly attired in pink shirts. (In fact, Treakle and Bhatia both sported navy blazers and gray trousers in court.)

Treakle asked Harris if he heard Schrader or anyone else call Bhatia an "Arab." Bhatia grew up in India.

"Absolutely not," replied Harris.

Defense witnesses Scott Garrison, who was with Bhatia that night, and Sandra Inthisen, a waitress at Downtown Thai, both testified they heard no profanity and did not see any chest bumping.

Inthisen said she was taking a break between 8:30 and 9:30pm on the night of the encounter and recognized Bhatia from the restaurant.

"I heard a political discussion," she said. But as Bhatia walked toward the Water Street garage, "I heard racial names," she said.

Garrison, who couldn't remember what he was wearing that night, recalled that both Bhatia and another member of their party were wearing pink shirts.

Under oath, Bhatia characterized his discussion with Schrader as a political discussion without any profanity, and said that he was interested in buying one of the t-shirts. He denied unzipping his fly. "That's not the kind of person I am," he said.

In his closing, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Platania asked why Harris, "shocked and scared," would call the police to report an incident– corroborated by two independent witnesses– if such an event never happened? Platania accused the defense witnesses of perjury.

Treakle argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove Bhatia's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Downer disagreed and found Bhatia guilty.

Before sentencing, Platania read Virginia's statute for hate crimes– which does not protect sexual orientation– and requested that Downer use his discretion on the Class 1 misdemeanor charge to impose a four-month jail sentence and a $2,500 fine and require Bhatia to perform 50 hours community service and attend anger management classes.

"I do think this is somewhat egregious," said Downer in issuing his sentence. "I think the Mall has to be a place where people can interact in a safe venue."

He imposed a $500 fine and a 90-day sentence with 80 days suspended.

Bhatia told The Hook he will appeal. "I'm a very tolerant person... God be my judge, I never made any of these comments. I intend to fight it, and I'm very confident in the appeals process."

He added that he had three more witnesses who didn't show up because they didn't get their subpoenas. "The results would have been very different," he said.

Defense witness Inthisen expressed surprise and disappointment at the verdict and the "lies" in court.

"I know Sonny's a great guy, and we never have a problem with him at the restaurant," she says, noting that one employee at Downtown Thai is gay. "It's not like I know Sonny [well enough] to protect him."

Harris and Platania declined to comment on the case, citing the possibility of appeal. "I do think Byron Harris is an incredibly courageous person," says Platania.

In 1999, Charlottesville City Council passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to include crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity under the state's hate crime statutes.

"I don't see any hope for that," says Delegate Mitch Van Yahres, noting this year's legislature and its passage of House Bill 751, which forbids civil unions and "partnership contracts" between people of the same sex.

Claire Kaplan, UVA's Sexual Assault Education Coordinator, in court to support Harris, is disappointed in the sentence. "[Bhatia] didn't just hurt an individual," she says. "He hurt a community– not just the gay community, but the entire Charlottesville community."

Sonny Bhatia was arrested October 29 and charged with assault and battery.

A successful Bhatia has 24 years in the investment industry and teaches hedge fund master classes.

Mac Schrader's "Reeject Bush" table was the scene of the crime.