Friends say homophobic bar attack could cost man sight in one eye

Highwater, a bar and restaurant located on Q street near 19th Street.
Highwater, a bar and restaurant located on Q street near 19th Street.

A man involved in a fight at the Highwater bar in midtown early Saturday morning said he and his friend were attacked by a man yelling an anti-gay slur.

Julio E. Villarman, 22, said he and his friend, Ismael Aranda, 24, were punched by a stranger in the men’s bathroom. Aranda’s wife said doctors are telling him he may lose sight in his left eye.

The suspect evidently fled before officers and an ambulance arrived at the Q Street bar just before 1 a.m.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Sacramento Police Department was treating the incident as a felony battery case and alleged hate crime, said spokesman Officer Eddie Macaulay. Officers have made no arrests but have passed the case off to the department’s criminal intelligence unit, which investigates bias-related crimes, Macaulay said.

Macaulay initially erroneously told a Sacramento Bee reporter on Wednesday that the crime had not yet been classified as a hate crime, he said.

Villarman says he and his friend were verbally and physically assaulted by a man in the men’s restroom after he spoke about his boyfriend during a phone conversation. The assailant called them names and then threw punches at both men before fleeing, Villarman said.

“He clearly looked belligerent, yelling at the top of his lungs, calling me a f-----t,” Villarman said of the man. “It was just a yell and quick punches. We had no real time to leave the bathroom.”

The incident left Villarman with injuries of his own, including a split lip and bruising to his jaw. Aranda sustained a cut to his eyeball and a fractured orbit, said his wife, Alicia Rivera. He was sent to the hospital after the incident, where he was kept until Saturday afternoon.

“Right now, the doctors are telling us that it is more likely that he will lose his eye than keeping his eye,” she said.

State law classifies a hate crime as a crime committed against someone based on a perceived or actual characteristic, such as a victim’s race, sexual orientation or religion.

“Proving someone’s thoughts is often times extremely difficult,” Macaulay said. “The more evidence you have, the easier it is to prove that bias-related crime.”

A similar incident took place in June 2015, when Sacramento police arrested Timothy Brownell, then 25, in a triple stabbing that left three Sacramento musicians injured. The stabbing was allegedly accompanied by homophobic slurs and triggered by the men’s skinny-legged jeans. Police did not initially call the incident a hate crime.

At the end of the trial, the jury could not agree on whether or not Brownell’s actions were motivated by anti-gay sentiment, and the judge declared a mistrial. During the trial, Brownell’s mother testified on his behalf, telling jurors that he was accepting of her longtime same-sex partner.

Brownell pleaded no contest to an assault charge in 2016, accepting a deal that dropped the hate crime charges against him and avoided the possibility of a new trial.

California police reported an 11.2 percent increase in total hate crimes for 2016, with most committed based on race or ethnicity, a 2017 state Department of Justice report found. Hate crimes targeting someone because of their sexual orientation were the second most common, reported a total of 1,176 times by California law enforcement agencies.

Friends and family have started a GoFundMe page for Aranda, who is a special education teacher in Sacramento and has an infant son, friends say. He will be examined by doctors next week, who will determine the next steps, Rivera said.

“My main focus is for him to get as much rest as he can,” she said. “I’m just praying and praying that he can keep his vision for his left eye.”

D.J. Rogers, the owner of Highwater, said eight security guards were at the bar Friday night and that they have handed over surveillance tapes to police. The bar checks IDs and conducts pat-downs, but does not photograph driver’s licenses, he said.

If you have information about any of these people, please call 800-222-7463 or 916-443-4357, or report online at crimealert.org.

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets

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