A smiling chef who had become a sidewalk fixture in front of an Italian restaurant disappeared this week from the Hertel Avenue scene -- replaced by a nasty, hate-filled note.
The owner of Filippo's, at 1264 Hertel, reported Thursday that someone had stolen the 6-foot statue of a chef arrayed in the colors of the Italian flag from in front of the establishment.
"I was mad," Filippo Inglima said Friday. "That statue has been with me for 10 years. It became a symbol for Hertel Avenue."
He was even more disturbed by the note that the same thieves apparently left in a nearby flower pot, saying: "[N-word] Lover."
Inglima said he has little doubt about the note's intent: He supports State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson and Mayor Byron W. Brown.
With Thompson, he held a fundraiser for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and he has photos of both politicians in his restaurant.
"That's the idea I have -- that it's because we support these two people," Inglima said. "It's all political."
But Inglima remained perplexed Friday that someone could have left such a note.
"They've got to be out of their minds," he said. "To think that there are still people like this, it blows my mind."
He was especially surprised that such a message could be left on Hertel Avenue, a melting pot of sorts in North Buffalo.
His friends, he said, include Italians, blacks, Poles and members of other ethnic groups.
He also said he has a reputation for helping people with donations and by feeding the hungry.
"I'm surprised to see this on Hertel," he said. "I'm not blaming the community. It must be one bad apple, or a few bad apples, on a tree. That bothers me a lot."
The Buffalo police report lists the crime as a grand larceny and harassment.
Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said the charges could be upgraded.
After consulting the state Penal Law, Clark said he thought the note itself would justify a charge of second-degree aggravated harassment, a Class A misdemeanor.
Under the state's hate-crime law, signed in July 2000, certain specified offenses, including that harassment charge and the grand larceny of the statue, would be upgraded to a more serious level if they are deemed hate crimes.
So the fourth-degree grand larceny charge would rise from a Class E felony to a Class D felony.
The harassment charge would rise from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony.
"Obviously, you would have to make the connection between the note and the theft, but once you do that, is there any question that it's a hate crime?" Clark asked. "Absolutely not."
The brief racial slur qualifies as almost a definition of a hate crime, he suggested.
"It's as textbook as a burning cross or a swastika," Clark added.
Inglima said he was convinced that at least two people, with a truck, stole the plaster statue of the colorful chef, which weighs about 150 pounds.
What is message for the thieves?
"I hope they grow up or get some brains," he replied. "It's insane.
"To me, they are cowards."