A Maryland man has been indicted on assault charges accusing him of pretending to be a police officer and spraying five men who he believed were gay with a chemical irritant at a park in Washington, D.C., the Justice Department said Thursday.
The man, Michael Thomas Pruden, 48, was arrested in Norfolk, Virginia, and charged with five counts of assault on federal land, one count of impersonating a U.S. Park Police officer and a hate-crimes sentencing enhancement, which could increase his sentence if a jury finds that he targeted the men because of their sexual orientation, the Justice Department said.
The attacks occurred from 2018 to 2021 at Meridian Hill Park, which is overseen by the National Park Service. It is “informally known in the Washington, D.C., community to be a meeting location for men seeking to engage in sexual encounters with other men” at night, according to the indictment.
After nightfall, Pruden would travel to the park, flashlight in hand, and approach the men, giving them “police-style commands” as he shined a light in their face and sprayed them with a chemical irritant, the department said.
Pruden had “falsely assumed and pretended to be” a Park Police officer, the indictment states.
If convicted, Pruden would face up to 10 years in prison on each assault charge. The maximum penalty could increase if the assaults are determined to be hate crimes, according to the Justice Department.
A woman who answered at a number listed as belonging to Pruden said in a brief interview that he was innocent. The woman, who declined to give her name, said she was unsure if he had a lawyer.
The charges against Pruden came as hate crimes have continued to plague the country. In 2019, the FBI reported that hate crimes in the United States rose to their highest level in more than a decade. That year, the agency documented more than 1,400 victims of hate crimes tied to sexual orientation. The motivation for about 880 of those crimes were rooted in anti-gay bias, the FBI said.
Experts say the FBI data most likely undercounts the number of hate crimes in America, both because many victims fail to report episodes and because local agencies are not required to report hate crime data to the FBI.
Pruden was acquitted by a jury last year of a similar attack in Daingerfield Island in Virginia. He had been accused of pepper-spraying two men and hitting one of them in the head with a large stick, according to an affidavit. He had shouted “I’m a cop” at the men and pretended to talk into a police radio, according to an affidavit in the case.