QUEENS — Officials and community leaders are urging members of the LGBT community in Queens to be on alert after the choking deaths of a former city sanitation worker and teacher in Elmhurst and East Elmhurst over the last two weeks.
Less than two weeks later on Feb. 9, 54-year-old sanitation worker Joseph Benzinger was discovered lying unconscious on the floor in a room at the Crown Motor Inn, 74-01 Queens Blvd., about 11:40 p.m. He was also choked to death, police said.
"This is an important and emotional thing for me as an openly gay elected official," Councilman Daniel Dromm said at a Tuesday press conference in front of the Crown Motor Inn. "With all of these crimes against LGBT people, it gives us cause for concern."
Despite the crimes' many similarities — the ages of the victims, the fact that they were both gay, the relative proximity and the method in which they were killed — investigators do not believe the murders are related, and do not believe them to be hate crimes, law enforcement sources said.
Investigators were poring over phone records and other evidence to try to determine who the men were with when they were killed, the sources said.
Police were seen removing a computer from Rangel's apartment the day he was found, and investigators suspected that he may have been killed by someone he met online, according to reports.
Each of the speakers outlined steps members of the LGBT community can take to stay safe when meeting up with people they've met on the Internet, including meeting in a public place, making sure that others see you and the person you're with.
"Dating is not inherently violent, but it is stigma that causes the violence," Dixon said. "It is homophobia and transphobia that causes violence, and it is shame that people feel from meeting people online."
When multiple LGBT attacks occur in any one area, members of the NYPD's Community Affairs LGBT Liaison Unit generally target those areas for outreach, representatives from the unit said on Tuesday.
In addition to Rangel and Benzinger, Charles Romo, 48, a Harlem resident, was found tied up and beaten to death in his apartment on Jan. 28 in what police said was a robbery.
Late last year, gay activist Lou Rispoli, 62, was brutally beaten in Sunnyside and eventually taken off of life support.
"I urge all people to be aware of these crimes and do everything they can to protect themselves," Quinn said in a statement.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.