Community rallies around vandalized cafe

Harper’s Cafe was vandalized July 13 and July 14. Police believe it was targeted because it showed support for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Harper’s Cafe is open again and a $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the recent bias incidents that occurred in West Orange.

“It’s been going good,” said Garan, the Harper’s owner who asked to be identified only by one name. “We are hitting our stride again. Business has picked back up and there’s still an outpouring of support from the community.”

Essex County Sheriff Armando B. Fontoura announced the reward and noted that law enforcement agencies are hard at work on finding out who was responsible for the incidents.

“Essex County is one of the most diverse counties in the state. We are proud to live peacefully side by side,” Fontoura said. “We are shocked and surprised by these biased crimes. They will not be tolerated, and law enforcement is working hard to apprehend the perpetrator(s) of these heinous actions.”

During the evening of Wednesday, July 12, Harper’s Café, which has shown support for the LGBTQIA+ community, was vandalized. The glass on the front door was smashed, and black paint was smeared on the store-front plate glass window and on a Pride flag located outside of the cafe.

On Thursday, July 13, between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., a second attack occurred in which a brick was thrown through the front window.

Also on July 13, a woman who owns a photo studio in town received a call where she was asked if she was “black.” Once hearing she was Hispanic, the caller told the studio owner she should move to another neighborhood. The caller also threatened to harm the business.

Roger Imhof, who runs the unit in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office that oversees bias cases, said a dedicated team of prosecutors and detectives is working on the cases with West Orange police.

“We need the public’s help,” Imhof said. “If you see something, report it to the prosecutor’s office. The only way we are going to prosecute these cases is with the help of the community.”

Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II held a press conference July 19 that included members of his staff, West Orange Police Chief Jim Abbott, Mayor Susan McCartney and Essex County Office of  LGBTQIA+ Affairs Director Reginald Bledsoe.

 Stephens said there is video of the attack at Harper’s Cafe and his office will be examining it. 

“We are most interested in getting this person off the street,” Stephens said. “We don’t want it to empower other people to do more.”

Imhof said that likely charges against an individual involved would be criminal mischief and bias, and the two combined could equal a sentence of five years in prison if a person were convicted of both.

It was noted at the press conference that New Jersey was one of the most diverse states in the union, Essex County was the most diverse county in the state and West Orange was a township known for its diversity.

“Being such a diverse community, we are a good target for someone,” Abbott said. “We are completely integrated and maybe that makes us more of a target.”

The chief and the mayor both said that a good way to help is to support the businesses that have been impacted.

The cafe did not open after the second attack and posted on its Instagram and Facebook pages that they would stay closed while the damage is being fixed but that they would reopen “with even more love and support for all.” 

Garan said Harper’s opened up again on July 20 and is maintaining its regular hours; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Stephens compared these incidents to the Jan. 29 attack on Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield and said a similar outcome is likely. In that case, a man threw a molotov cocktail at the building, doing minimal damage and injuring no one. Nicholas Malindretos, 26, of Clifton, was arrested two days after the incident and charged with attempted use of fire to damage and destroy a building used in interstate commerce. 

“We will turn over every stone to bring these people to justice,” Stephens said. 

The investigation is active and ongoing. No arrests have been made. Anyone with information about either crime is asked to contact the West Orange Police Department at 973-325-4000, or the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office tips line at 1-877-TIPS-4EC or 1-877-847-7432.

Information about any bias incident in New Jersey can be reported to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office by calling 1-800-277-BIAS (2427).

The reward is being offered through the Essex County Sheriff’s Crime Stoppers Program, Fontoura said.