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A Look Into the "Particularly Chilling" Motive Behind Long Island Man’s Fatal Hit and Run
Witnesses saw four males dragging Michael Sandy's lifeless body from the Belt Parkway before rummaging through his pockets.
It was early in the scene of online dating, and Michael Sandy, 28, had just moved to Brooklyn in search of love. What Sandy couldn’t know at the time was that a group of males looking to rob gay men would soon lure him to his tragic death.
As recalled by friends, Michael Sandy was a fun and vibrant man who loved to dance, having just landed a job as an interior designer at Ikea. Originally from Long Island's Bellport, New York, a Suffolk County town about 70 miles east of Manhattan, Sandy — who lived as a Black and gay man — set off for the trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
There, he hoped to live out his dreams and possibly find someone with whom to share his life.
“He was all joy,” friend Patrick McBride told Final Moments, airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. “He had a laugh that could carry a room.”
Friends called Sandy “loyal, sensitive, [and] compassionate,” someone who previously struggled to find acceptance as a gay and Black man on Long Island, according to childhood friend Becky Reiching-Sandano.
“He wanted to work in Brooklyn, live in Brooklyn, and breathe Brooklyn… I think what was very attractive to him was really that social element, and to really find a connection, to find love,” said Reiching-Sandano. “I feel like he had to make that move to survive and express who he was and to be who he was meant to be.”
Michael Sandy Targeted in hit and run on the Belt Parkway
At around 10:00 p.m. on September 8, 2006 — about one month after Sandy moved to Brooklyn — N.Y.P.D. cops were called to an unlit section of the Belt Parkway at Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach, where there was reportedly a hit-and-run accident, according to Detective Thomas Verni. The then-unidentified victim, who would transpire to be Michael Sandy, was found clinging to life.
“Some of the accounts that the officers are getting are stating that this young Black male was being chased by a number of white males from the parking lot along the Belt Parkway, and then being struck by a vehicle as he’s being chased,” Verni told Final Moments.
Witnesses said the men dragged Sandy off the highway before rummaging through the victim’s pockets and fleeing the scene. Nearby, detectives found Sandy’s blue Mazda still running, his identification inside the vehicle.
At first, they wondered if this was a racially motivated or targeted attack.
A digital investigation commences
As Sandy clung to life at a Brooklyn hospital, police quickly began an investigation. They visited Sandy’s roommates in Williamsburg, asking why Sandy might have been some 20 miles south at Plumb Beach.
The roommates had no answers, but they did say Sandy was giving online dating a try. In Sandy’s bedroom, the victim’s laptop was still open to an AOL (America Online) chat, though back in 2006, internet dating was relatively new and largely unregulated, according to police.
Thanks to the N.Y.P.D. having one of the country’s first computer crime units, Detective Denise Dragos of the Computer Crimes Squad started a digital investigation into Sandy’s last-known online interactions from the night of the hit-and-run.
“Looking back, I got the impression that he might have had an idea what he was doing was potentially risky,” Dragos observed. “I don’t think it was an accident that he left his computer on with a chat window open… he left the breadcrumbs.”
The correspondence showed Sandy, using the screenname Drumnbass007, met an unidentified person named FishEYEFox. The two made plans to meet at Plumb Beach at around 8:00 p.m. to smoke marijuana together.
But, according to Det. Verni, Sandy grew “uneasy” and became “spooked” when seeing a group of men in the parking lot instead of just one, prompting him to leave.
Sandy then went back to his Williamsburg apartment and returned to the chat. However, this time, FishEYEFox insisted he’d be alone, claiming the other guys were just some random people he’d met while waiting for Sandy.
Sandy’s last message would read, “See u in 20 min” before he returned to Plumb Beach.
Police identify FishEYEFox and his three friends
With Sandy on life support, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office approved a court order to search the identity behind FishEYEFox, soon leading to a man named John Fox. Det. Dragos and others traced the I.P. address to a Brigham Street, Brooklyn residence — just a few blocks from Plumb Bach — where police sat hoping to find Fox.
Detectives stopped a man just returning home from work, asking him about his internet use, though he was not John Fox. In fact, the man knew no John Fox but claimed to have just purchased a brand-new router which, at the time, lacked any security as a “rogue” device, meaning anyone within range could have used the wireless network.
Det. Dragos found the router still unused by its owner on the man’s kitchen table and, on a whim, went online and reached out to FishEYEFox.
“I have an undercover account, and I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’” Dragos told Final Moments. “It was just a shot in the dark to see if I could figure out where the heck this computer was.”
The plan worked, and the real John Fox soon responded from SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx. Investigators confirmed that 19-year-old John Fox was enrolled, thanks to confirmation by campus police.
Detectives visited Fox at his dorm room, though Fox maintained that on the night of Sandy’s hit-and-run, he and his friends were hanging around and drinking beer, denying any role in the accident.
“During this interview, John Fox starts to get nervous, and his answers start to contradict themselves,” said Det. Verni. “This is going from an interview turning into an interrogation.”
Fox agreed to go with police to the 61st Precinct in Brooklyn, where he gave the names of his friends: Anthony Fortunato, Gary Timmons, and a Russian male he knew as “Alex,” later identified as Ilya Shurov. According to Det. Verni, the young men were “looking to have a little fun” when carousing internet chat rooms for gay men, hoping to lure and rob them.
What happened at Plumb Beach?
The men used a laptop at Fortunato’s home, next door to the man with the rogue router on Brigham Street. Fox said it was all Fortunato’s idea, though they all agreed to take Sandy’s money under the theory that a gay man would be less inclined to alert authorities to a robbery.
“There was something particularly chilling about how this man was lured out to his death, basically,” said prosecutor Seth Lieberman of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.
According to Fox, the men waited for Sandy for both arrivals to Plumb Beach, approaching Sandy’s vehicle and attacking him on site. Sandy escaped before being chased onto the busy road, and while it seemed to be Fortunato’s idea, it was believed Shurov was the primary aggressor.
The person behind the wheel of the car that struck Sandy never stopped.
“Imagine the sheer terror that he was probably feeling when he’s chased onto a busy highway, running for his life, and running into a speeding vehicle,” Verni told Final Moments. “Those last seconds of his life were seconds that he didn’t deserve.”
The group of young men then dragged Sandy off the road, emptied his pockets, and returned to Fortunato’s house, “all shaken up,” according to Verni.
“It’s almost like classic, stupid kids, but there was a coldness about it as well,” said Prosecutor Lieberman.
Detectives interviewed Shurov and Timmons, who, like Fox, confessed to the attack and pointed to Fortunato as the mastermind. Fortunato declined to speak with police before attempting to take his own life, which landed him in a local hospital.
The Death of Michael Sandy and Subsequent Arrests, Convictions
Meanwhile, Michael Sandy remained on life support when he turned 29 on October 12, 2006. With no chance for recovery, Sandy’s family made the heartbreaking choice of taking him off life support, waiting the next day so he wouldn’t have to die on his birthday.
“The day after his 29th birthday, his family made that awful, awful decision,” said an emotional Verni.
“You feel robbed,” Sandy’s friend Patrick McBride told Final Moments. “Especially when it comes with an act that has such malice for anything of joy and life and love.”
Fortunato was still hospitalized when police obtained a search warrant for his family home, finding the laptop hidden in the basement. The device — referred to as “the smoking gun” by Det. Dragos — was enough to charge Fortunato with attempted robbery and manslaughter, plus a then-rarely-used hate crime enhancement since he targeted Sandy in a gay chatroom.
On Oct. 25, 2006, John Fox, Ilya Shurov, and Anthony Fortunato were indicted on charges of second-degree murder, attempted robbery, and manslaughter as part of a hate crime. The same day, Gary Timmons — still a minor when the crime occurred — pleaded guilty to charges of attempted robbery and second-degree murder.
As part of a shocking defense strategy, Fortunato’s attorney alleged that his client didn’t act out of hate since he also identified as a gay man.
“He can have mixed motives, but it doesn’t get him off the hook,” Lieberman told Final Moments. “From the get-go, the whole plan was based on targeting a gay person.”
In 2007, Fox and Fortunato were acquitted on charges of second-degree murder, though both were found guilty of the manslaughter and robbery charges as hate crimes and sentenced to seven to 21 years in prison.
Shurov pleaded guilty to the same charges and was sentenced to 17 and a half years behind bars.
For testifying with the prosecution, Timmons was handed a four-year term.
Those close to Michael Sandy debated whether justice was served with the men’s convictions. However, the case hit the LGBTQ+ community especially hard, even affecting Detective Thomas Verni on “a personal level.”
“Back in 2006, I was a single, gay man, on the internet, talking to people and meeting up with people,” Verni revealed to Final Moments. “For all practical purposes, I could have been Michael Sandy.”
Friends continue to remember Sandy through photos and videos that exist today.
“He was a wonderful human being from head to toe,” said friend Becky Reiching-Sandano. “He lived life to the fullest.”
Watch all-new episodes of Final Moments on Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.