Family hoping for justice after attack on autistic black teen

A Syracuse, N.Y., mom says she is hoping for justice after her autistic teen son, who is black, was attacked by a white man while running in a cross-country event in upstate Rochester in mid-October.

Officials in Rochester, a city of 210,000 on Lake Ontario, this week reversed themselves, and on Monday, police sent two officers to take a deposition from Clarise Coleman, mother of Chase Coleman, 15. Weeks before, Rochester City Court sent a letter to the mother saying a judge had denied her warrant application to press charges. On Wednesday, Clarise Coleman said police issued an arrest warrant for the 57-year-old man, identified as Martin McDonald of Pittsford, N.Y. The reversal comes after pressure from the family and the public.

"If that's what it took, for that part of it to get started, then just let that play out the way it's supposed to play out," Clarise Coleman, 47, told USA TODAY. "My focus right now is getting Chase to want to run."

Clarise Coleman said what makes the case particularly difficult is that her son, a fan of Marvel Comics, Captain America and action figures, began to bloom after taking up running. Since the incident, he tells her "no more practice" and seems to blame himself for the altercation in which the attacker told Chase "get out of here," according to a police report.

"That night, after he took a shower, my husband said, 'The police got the bad man, they got the mean man,' and Chase put his head down," Clarise Coleman recalled. "I said, 'No, you didn't do anything wrong.' "

The case has drawn nationwide attention in the last several days after Clarise Coleman took to social media.

Among the people who noticed was Syracuse Common Councilwoman Susan Boyle, who stepped in to try and help.

"I thought, there's no way that this is going to happen," said Boyle, who wrote a letter to Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley seeking some movement in the case.

"We aren't going to have a child, an autistic African-American, attacked on the street by a grown man," Boyle said.

The incident took place Oct. 14 as Chase was running in Rochester in a cross-country event. According to the police report, a witness observed McDonald get out of his vehicle, push Chase to the ground and shout, "Get out of here." Chase did not respond, according to the witness, the police report says.

McDonald told police that he feared Chase planned on mugging his wife, who sat in the passenger seat of the couple's car, according to the report. McDonald could not be reached and his telephone number was not included in the police report.

On that day, Chase's mother said she was waiting on the course to cheer him on. She noticed he was taking a bit longer than his usual running pace when a woman approached and said Chase had been assaulted. Coleman said she began to run toward the direction Chase should have been coming from when she encountered another witness, a male, walking with his bike, Chase walking next to him.

Chase typically does not talk much and could only indicate that his back hurt, Coleman said.

Charise Coleman held up two hands to Chase, one if he wanted to stop and let his coaches know what happened, the other if he wanted to finish the race. Chase opted to finish.

Coleman tried to press charges but received a denial letter from Rochester City Court dated Oct. 21. That's when she began to make noise via social media. People were upset because Chase is well-liked, she said, and she was flooded with support.

The coach for Chase's cross-country camp said that when the teen first came into the program two or three years ago, he struggled at first but then caught on to what was required physically.

"By the end of the week, he was amazing at camp and all 60 members and 15 teachers of the camp embraced him and encouraged him," said Mike Melfi, director, Syracuse Parks and Recreation Track/Field/Cross Country Summer Camp.

"Everyone began to truly love being around him (teachers and campers). Chase has one speed, and we noticed he can run that speed forever. Chase fully understands what we asked him to do and that was awesome to see," Melfi said.

Coach Juan Martinez, who worked with Chase at the cross-country camp this past summer, said the teen is a good, quiet kid who works hard. Martinez said he was deeply hurt when he learned what happened to Chase.

"I had tears down my face," said Martinez, lead teacher of Syracuse Parks and Recreation cross country class. "I'm not that type of person to shed tears."

Now, the community is trying to come together to help Chase. They want to get him running again.

Residents are working on scheduling a community run for Nov. 19 in hopes of enticing the teen back out, Melfi said. They hope to call it, "Keep Going; Don't Stop; Keep Going," because that is what people say to Chase when he runs, Melfi explained.

Although some communities in the state have sometimes battled a reputation for intolerance, the incident with Chase Coleman appears to have brought people together.

The pastor of a multiracial church in a Syracuse suburb said that her parishioners said during a discussion on race that the incident was unfair and that it upset them.

"Pretty much everyone's consensus — black and white — was, 'Here we go again,' " said the Rev. Tamara Jackson of First Baptist Church of Syracuse, in Jamesville, N.Y. " 'How could the man say he was afraid that his wife was going to be mugged when she's sitting in the car?' " Jackson said, recalling the conversation.

"One gentleman said, 'And as sad as it is, the silver lining is that he was just pushed down, as opposed to having them call the cops. ' I thought, 'Isn't that something when you're so terrorized that you're looking at the lesser evils as the silver lining?' "

In the meantime, Coleman said, Chase is slowly returning to himself.

"He wasn't sleeping and wasn't eating, but he's coming back to being his jolly little 15-year-old Sponge Bob self," Clarise Coleman said. "This man tried to take my faith out of humanity, and all these other people, I feel like were all standing together saying, 'Nope.' "


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