A 19-year-old Michigan State University student is recovering at home in Oakland County today after surgery overnight for a broken jaw his family says stems from a brutal hate crime. Police, however, said it did not appear to be a hate crime.
Two men at a party early Sunday attacked Zachary Tennen, a journalism sophomore at MSU, after asking whether he was Jewish, his mother and father, Tina and Bruce Tennen, said today.
They raised their arms in a Nazi salute, chanting “Heil Hitler” and then knocked Tennen unconscious, she said.
However, the East Lansing Police Department said in a statement that its preliminary investigation indicated it was not likely a hate crime.
“Two witnesses have been located, and ELPD has identified a potential suspect. He does not live in the area,” the statement said. “ELPD is making significant progress with the case. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
Zachary told police the two men then “stapled me in the back side of my bottom teeth, starting in my gums and going upwards,” his father read today from Zachary’s statement to East Lansing Police.
“I’ve never heard of anything so horrific,” said Bruce Tennen, whose father was long-time Third Circuit Court Judge Harvey F. Tennen, who died in 2011. “The whole thing is unconscionable, what they did to him.”
Zachary told his parents no one at the party helped him as he was attacked and then thrown out of the gathering. He took a cab to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing for initial treatment, but underwent surgery at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland hospital in Pontiac overnight to have his jaw wired shut, his mother said.
“I’m really, really upset in a few ways,” Zachary Tennen, said, according to the MSU student newspaper the State News. “First of all it is a terrible experience, physically and also mentally to know someone would do something like this,” he said before his surgery, despite the difficulties for him to talk.
“It almost seemed like they tried to kill me, and to think about that in my brain, physically — it isn’t very pleasant.”
The family has filed a report with East Lansing Police.
Bruce Tennen said he’s working with the Anti-Defamation League to make sure the two men are found and prosecuted. He said he’ll support an investigation by the FBI if local police do not make an arrest.
“I will do everything in my power to see that the assailants are located, A, and B, arraigned, jailed and prosecuted,” Tennen said. “I want them to pay for what they did. I want them to understand the ramifications of what they did as opposed to walking away and laugh and say you blanking Jew. And if it has to take a court of law to do it, they have to be prosecuted. He was an innocent victim.”
A young man who answered the door at the house where the reported assault took place would say only that police had instructed him not to talk about the incident.
Tennen has been involved with MSU Hillel, the Jewish student community center in East Lansing. He ate dinner there Saturday night, a reunion of sorts for a group he had traveled with to Israel this past May.
Hillel staff members said they couldn’t imagine him doing anything to provoke an assault.
“He’s a very small person,” said program associate Dirk Roberts. “He’s never been confrontational to anyone I know. I don’t know what could have warranted the actions that were taken.”
“I just hope that these kids get found and I hope they’re brought to justice,” Roberts said, “and I hope nothing like this ever happens again.”
According to Michigan Incident Crime Reporting data, there were 21 victims of anti-Jewish hate or bias crimes last year, while there were 18 in 2010 and 20 in 2009.
Cindy Hughey, executive director of MSU Hillel, said this is the fourth or fifth “really horrible anti-Semitic incident” she’s seen in her 13 years with the center.
“It’s a wonderful diverse campus that works great most days of the year,” she said. “It’s these few isolated incidents that shock us back to the reality to say, ‘You know what, we still have a long way to go.’”
MSU’s Office of Marketing Communications today e-mailed a statement by Assistant Vice President for Media Communications Kent Cassella.
“Michigan State University’s Student Affairs and Services office has reached out to the family of the student who said he was assaulted in East Lansing to provide the academic and other support the student needs,” Cassella said. “MSU will work with the student and his professors to ensure he can fulfill his academic requirements, as we would with any student in need. As the incident occurred off campus in East Lansing, all questions about the police investigation need to go the East Lansing Police Department.”
Police did not respond this morning to requests for information about the alleged incident.
Tina Tennen said the family doesn’t know the identities of the two men. Bruce Tennen said his son was visiting friends in the 500 block of Spartan, then he and three of them walked to a party being thrown by strangers a couple of doors down. The friends left, leaving Zachary alone at the gathering. That’s when the attack occurred, Bruce Tennen said.
“I hope that they get prosecuted, go to jail,” Tina Tennen said. “You hear about it in the news, but I guess it’s something that you think never will happen to you.”
She said her son hopes to return to take classes at MSU in about a week.
“It’s an awful hate crime, and what he’s gone through emotionally and physically, it’s scary to put it into words,” Tina Tennen said, pausing from getting her son medicine as he recuperates at their home in Franklin.
“Hopefully the worst is behind us. It’s going to be hopefully not too rough.”
Bruce Tennen said the main priority now is his son, a basketball aficianado who he calls “a straight arrow,” getting him healthy and back to classes at MSU.
In the meantime, Zachary Tennen will keep Tweeting about basketball under “@ZJTBasketball11” as he recuperates.
“I hope that we can live in a non-prejudicial, non-anti-Semitic society where somebody’s not attacked based on their race, creed, nationality, religion, lifestyle,” Bruce Tennen said. “What did Zach do? He didn’t provoke anybody. He was an innocent victim. And even if he did provoke somebody, does that merit trying to maim and/or kill? No, I don’t think so.”
The ELPD Detective Bureau has been working the case since being notified of the assault, the statement said. Anyone with information is asked to contact ELPD Det. Dan Brown at (517) 319-6811.
East Lansing Police investigators were at the Tennen’s home in Franklin at 3 p.m. today, questioning Zachary about the attack.