Two 13-year-old boys have been arrested and charged with setting an 89-year-old Asian woman on fire in New York City earlier this summer. The unidentified juveniles were arrested and charged with third-degree assault early this week and last.
“They are juveniles, they are both 13 years old. It’s an absolute terrible incident,” Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo told Inside Edition Digital. Loo heads the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, which was created earlier this year to combat the rise of hate crimes against Asians in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The unidentified 89-year-old woman, who only speaks Cantonese, was attacked in Brooklyn in July allegedly by two juveniles she didn’t know and had no prior interaction with. She said she felt the suspects hit her in the face before she felt a sharp pain in her back, according to WABC. That’s when she realized her back was on fire.
She pulled her hair up so it wouldn’t burn, and rubbed her back against a pole to put out the flames, she told WABC. She was reluctant to go to the police, and didn’t even tell her family until much later for fear of worrying then.
“Prior to our intervention, she didn't want to come forward,” Loo said. “She only came forward because her family pleaded with her to come forward.”
Officer Jacky Wong, who is part of the Asian Hate Crime Task Force, said he understands the sentiment. “My family especially, we don’t like to get involved,” Wong told Inside Edition Digital.
Wong was asked to reach out to the victim and speak to her and her family. He said when he heard about the incident, he thought of his own grandmother.
“I was really just eager to help because you really feel for someone of that age to be victimized like this for no apparent reason,” he explained. “I just tried my best and did everything I could to make her feel comfortable using our native tongue, Cantonese, and just helping her with the process.”
One of the goals of the Asian Hate Crime Task Force is to deploy officers of similar backgrounds to the victims so they feel comfortable coming forward, and can use their native tongue to speak to investigators without going through an additional translator.
“It just makes it easier to have someone that speaks the language and it shows empathy because it's hard to convey that through a translator,” said Wong, who is a first-generation immigrant himself. “Having someone that speaks the language and is of your background makes it a little bit easier for them to feel comfortable with going through the facts.”
That element was key to cracking this case, Loo explained. “She had initially told the investigator she wasn't too sure about the identity or the description of the perpetrator. When we got a chance to speak with her, she was very detailed in description and she was able to identify who was the one that assaulted her,” he said. “So that was a good break in the case, and that eventually led to an arrest.”
The case is being handled by New York City's Law Department. Further information on the status of the cases against the teen boys was not available.