It was the coldest day of the year, in the depths of the polar vortex, as tenants in more than 10,000 public housing apartments shivered amid heat outages across the city.
That’s when two New York City Housing Authority workers — on call as part of the agency’s ramped-up effort to combat the deep freeze — allegedly decided it was time to have a party inside an unsuspecting tenant’s apartment.
By the end of the day, one of those workers was under arrest, charged with an attempted sexual assault that police say took place inside the apartment where they were supposed to be making electrical repairs.
The Jan. 31 incident at Manhattan’s Douglass Houses led to the arrest of a NYCHA electrician’s assistant, Joseph Handel – and the suspension, without pay, of Handel and his co-worker, NYCHA electrician Juan Ascuasiati.
For a week the temperature had been dropping, reaching a low of 1.9 degrees that Thursday.
Throughout the day, tenants in 10,430 NYCHA apartments experiencing heat outages deluged the authority’s repair request hotline, asking for help. NYCHA was particularly sensitive about this, given the previous winter’s debacle when some 300,000 tenants endured outages.
In amping up its response, NYCHA authorized automatic overtime for hundreds of workers systemwide, putting them on call.
An Afternoon Visit to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
That cold day Handel and Ascuasiati were on-call but also assigned to perform non-heat-related tasks, including an electrical repair job at the Douglass Houses. Instead, they wound up that afternoon at the bar of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem, according to two sources familiar with the incident.
There, while on the clock, they met a woman they invited back to an apartment where they were supposed to make repairs, according to court records and law enforcement sources familiar with the events of that day.
A prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office later said in an initial court appearance that Handel “lured” the victim “to a strange apartment with false promises.”
The two NYCHA workers and the woman headed over to the Douglass Houses apartment where they’d been assigned work, according to the sources.
Sources say the tenant let them in and left. It’s not clear what the tenant was told.
With the tenant gone, Handel “isolated” the woman in the apartment’s kitchen, where he allegedly grabbed her and kissed her without her consent, a criminal complaint states. The woman told investigators Handel then reached his hand inside her pants until she pushed him away.
Handel then tried to force the woman to perform a sex act, according to the complaint. She pushed him away again, the complaint states, and she continued to resist “until the apartment owner kicked them out of the apartment.”
Sources say tenant returned and threw out everyone. On the street, the victim escaped from Handel and fled to the nearby 24th Precinct, where she reported the alleged attack, the sources said.
Charges and Suspensions
Handel, 35, was arrested that day by an NYPD Housing cop, and charged with one count each of first-degree attempted sexual act and attempted sexual abuse, both felonies. Prosecutors requested $50,000 bail. Handel was released on $10,000 cash bail and a $20,000 bond.
On Friday, Handel’s attorney, Barry Agulnick, told THE CITY, “This is a case that needs careful investigation and when that is done, my client will be vindicated.”
The NYPD notified NYCHA’s Office of Safety and Security of the incident. The next day, NYCHA notified the city’s Department of Investigation as required because the allegation involved a city employee.
DOI spokeswoman Diane Struzzi said authorities are “aware of the matter and tracking the progress of the criminal case.”
Ascuasiati was suspended without pay for 30 days on Feb. 4, officials said. Handel also was suspended without pay for 30 days – but not until Feb. 26 because he stopped showing up to work for most of the month, officials said.
Ascuasiati is back on the job. Handel remains suspended and facing possible termination.
Jasmine Blake, a spokesperson for NYCHA, responded to an inquiry by THE CITY by stating the authority acted quickly once officials learned of the allegations.
“We are cooperating with the NYPD and took immediate action upon learning about this by suspending both men for the maximum amount of time allowed under Civil Service Law,” Blake said. “We are also pursuing additional disciplinary action now.”
She added, “This situation is completely unacceptable and an insult to our residents and the thousands of tireless employees who work hard every day to serve them.”
Ascuasiati earned $129,445 last year, including $22,609 in overtime. Handel took home $84,498, including $16,699 in OT, records show.
Sean Fitzgerald of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, which represents both of the workers, declined comment Friday, stating, “At this time we have not seen any of the charges.”
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