An Irish gangster once told Kristian Sorbera, “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried out by six.”
“It was something that stuck in my head,” Sorbera said. The dictum shaped his approach to his job, working security at various clubs in Brooklyn and Queens where violence and threats were common. “I went through a lot of stuff—violence and crazy stuff,” Sorbera said in an interview. “I had my face stabbed. I was shot at. You get at a mode where you take things seriously.”
Early in the morning on March 18, 2013, Sorbera faced a choice at the corner of 130th Street and 92nd Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. His choice would lead him to be judged by a jury of 12 while another man was carried out by six.
Sorbera had recently clocked out of his job working security at Moka Nightclub and Lounge when he encountered Humeshanand Bholanauth, 22, and Deosarran Vishnu Ramdular, 24. Both were heavily intoxicated, police said. Sorbera said of Ramdular, “I clocked him.”
Suffering severe injuries, Ramdular was declared brain dead six days later. The exact cause of death would later be disputed by Sorbera’s defense attorney, Angelo MacDonald. Ramdular had been in several other physical fights that night. MacDonald would also argue that Sorbera acted in self-defense. But neither argument would prevail.
A jury convicted Sorbera of first-degree manslaughter in July, 2014. He is currently serving a 17-year sentence in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. In addition to a trial Sorbera now describes as a “circus,” he faced the court of public opinion, specifically Facebook, where Kevin Deonarain, Ramdular’s close friend and Bholanauth’s cousin, attempted to mobilize support before Sorbera’s sentencing a month after his conviction.
The Gentle Giant and the Generous Soul
Sorbera’s record described him as 6’5” and 250 pounds though Sorbera himself disputes the height. The prosecution “made me larger,” he said in a recent interview at Sing Sing. Exact height aside, he was described as a “gentle giant” by friends and family. Now 30, Sorbera grew up with many friends in Electchester—a Local 3 union-sponsored co-op in Fresh Meadows, Queens. His friends were diverse. “We used to call them the rainbow coalition because there was the Guyanese kid, the Indian kid, the black kid—there was a whole group of them, and they were all good kids,” said Toni Brandstetter, Sorbera’s second cousin. “This kid was not running amok.”
Sorbera’s physical dominance was apparent at a young age. “Even at 12, I had the strength of an adult,” Sorbera said. He practiced Tae Kwon Do and boxing through Robert F Kennedy Community High School, though he was best known for baseball. “I wanted to be the best,” he said. “Guys really respected me for that.” His fiercest competitor was always his older brother Robert, now 32. They were nicknamed Bebop and Rock Steady—the two stars of the local team.
After graduating, he began working as a bouncer. Sorbera said he never applied for the job but was repeatedly recruited due to his size. He said he soon became integrated into the tight-knit bouncer community in Brooklyn and Queens. The mentality of the bouncers was: “You and me work together because you’re going to have my back,” he said. He began to bulk up by working out more. “Everybody’s lifting weights, getting bigger, so you get bigger,” he said.
But despite his size and profession, Brandstetter emphasized that Sorbera was not inclined towards violence. “He wasn’t a fighter,” she said. “He could have played football, but he wanted to play baseball.”
Long before their encounter with Sorbera, Deonarain introduced Ramdular to his cousin Bholanauth. The three Indian Guyanese-American young men were part of a group of close friends who met at Shri Maha Kali Devi Mandir, a Hindu temple in East New York, Brooklyn. In their spare time, they hung out eating, drinking, and playing Call of Duty at Ramdular’s house, Deonarain said. Ramdulan’s mother “used to cook for all of us,” said Deonarain. “That would be like a second home to us.”
Deonarain remembers Ramdular’s generosity. “He was that type of person that would give you the shirt off his back if you liked it,” said Deonarain. “He didn’t come from a lot, but he would always give.” At one point, Ramdular offered to give Deonarain a gold pair of “om” sign earrings that had cost him $350. Deonarain didn’t accept the generous present despite Ramdular’s insistence.
But Ramdular had a dark side. “He was a rowdy person when he drank,” said Deonarain. “He got into a lot of fights at the club. Some of them could have been avoided, and some of them were caused by him.”
In the days leading up to the night of his death, Ramdular was dealing with disappointment. He had liked a girl who moved to Florida and “was talking to someone else,” said Deonarain.
A Loud Night at Moka
Moka Nightclub and Lounge was known for a youthful, high energy and primarily Trinidadian and Guyanese crowd. The music was usually soca and reggaeton.
Reviews on Moka’s Yelp page contain several mentions of the club’s fighting culture. One review said, “Inside the club, at least once per night there is a big fight where even if you are not involved someone might take a random swing at you and make you involved.”
Sorbera stood out at the club because of his physical appearance. “Friends of ours wanted him to get out of that club because he was the only white person in there,” Brandstetter said. Deonarain recalled Sorbera as an “aggressive bouncer” who had pushed his friends on more than one occasion. Conversely, Sorbera remembered Ramdular and his crew as habitual fighters.
On the night in question, Ramdular and Bholanauth were drinking heavily, according to Sorbera and Deonarain. At 2:30 a.m., another bouncer escorted Ramdular out of the club at 2:30 a.m. for raucous behavior—spilling beer and “creating havoc,” according to MacDonald. In the interview at Sing Sing, Sorbera said that a girl complained the two had sprayed liquor on her, which had prompted a physical altercation between two groups of friends. “These guys want to be ballers,” Sorbera said, noting that they were mimicking music videos.
Shortly after the club closed at 4 a.m., there was a physical fight in the street in front of Moka. “He [Ramdular] was staggering,” said MacDonald, who has watched a video of the scene that was admitted as evidence during the trial. “He was hitting people, punching people, kicking people, throwing things at people. It was absolutely shocking.” Sorbera and several other members of Moka’s security team tried to calm things down.
Deonarain said that Ramdular had stepped in to reprimand Bholanauth for hitting another man in the skirmish. “That’s how Vish [Ramdular] was,” said Deonarain. “He could be very stern with us.” At this point, Sorbera stepped into the confrontation between Bholanauth and Ramdular. Sorbera said in the interview that Ramdular said to him, “I’m going to shoot you. You think you’re so tough—I’m going to kill you.”
Shortly after the crowd disbursed, Sorbera formally clocked out of his job at Moka. He returned to his parked car across the street from the club and began to drive home. It was at this point that he came across an intoxicated and staggering Ramdular and Bholanauth on an empty street.
According to Bholanauth, Sorbera was driving down 92nd Avenue where the two were walking. When he saw them, Sorbera parked the car, got out, then punched Ramdular and “stomped his head,” according to a statement Bholanauth gave to the police. Sorbera then told Ramdular that he “deserved this” and drove in the direction of Moka. Bholanauth also identified Sorbera from a line up.
“You have to understand my cousin and Vish were really, really drunk,” said Deonarain. “Any slight push would make you stumble and Kris Sorbera is huge. They had no chance.”
In a written confession, Sorbera said, “the [sic] two guys jumed [sic] in frount [sic] of my car we got into a fight I hit the guy a few times then left.” In the interview, Sorbera said that Ramdular made a shooting gesture with his hands in a way that he felt was threatening. He admitted to punching Ramdular, but said he did not remember kicking him. He still disputes that this action caused Ramdular’s death, noting Ramdular’s two fights earlier in the evening, both of which were much longer than this brief encounter. “I admitted to hitting the guy,” Sorbera said, “but he had a lot of injuries that I didn’t do.”
The day after he gave his statement, Sorbera was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. Ramdular was treated at Elmhurst Hospital. The injuries to his brain were severe. “When I saw Vish in the hospital, it was an image that I will never forget,” said Deonarain. “It’s hard to talk about.”
After Ramdular was declared brain dead, his family agreed to take him off life support. As a result, the charges against Sorbera were upgraded to first-degree manslaughter.
The Court of Public Opinion
About two weeks after Ramdular’s death, Deonarain started a Facebook page, “RIP Deosarran ‘Vishnu’ Ramdular. Posts of protest proliferated when the charges against Sorbera were not immediately upgraded from assault. The page became a forum for Deonarain to update the community on the trial, which began on July 16, 2014. Five to 10 supporters of Ramdular would attend every single court date, according to MacDonald, along with supporters of Sorbera. “The victim had a very involved family and lots of friends,” said MacDonald. “And every day they were there.”
But the page took off as a mobilization tool in the weeks leading up to Sorbera’s sentencing on Aug. 28, 2014. Deonarain posted screenshots of information from the city Department of Corrections to update the Guyanese community on the sentencing date. The intent was to support Ramdular’s family and potentially influence the court’s perception of the victim. “I feel like if there was a courtroom full of people, that would look better to a jury and a judge,” said Deonarain. He invited 2,000 people to the sentencing date but said he was disappointed when few beyond Ramdular’s core supporters showed up.
MacDonald confirmed that support on either side makes an impression on the judge and jury. “It always looks good,” he said. “If they see that there’s people there supporting him, then they got to think, ‘Well, there must be something good about him.’”
Both parties were generally respectful of each other at the trial. “His [Sorbera’s] brother would say ‘Hi’ to us, I would shake his hand, they were very nice people,” said Deonarain, adding that Sorbera’s mother “didn’t want anything to do with us.” Sorbera’s parents declined to be interviewed. But online was a different story. Brandstetter was the number one advocate for Sorbera on the group, writing scathing posts in all capital letters that said, “STOP THE LIES!!! YOU ARE SENDING AN INNOCENT YOUNG MAN TO JAIL.” Deonarain, manager of the group, replied to her comments, saying, “If he was ‘jumped’ why did only one person end up with such severe bruises and injuries that took his life?”
Deonarain said that maintaining his cool in spite of Brandstetter’s online threats was difficult at times. “It’s hard, like, in that situation: My friend died, your nephew is still alive, but you’re telling me my friend deserved this?” he said. Brandstetter justified her behavior as speaking out against what she believed to be a mobilized effort. “I had a couple words and a couple fights with these kids,” she said. “I grew up in Jamaica [Queens]. Nothing scares me.”
When he heard about how Brandstetter defended him online, Sorbera laughed and said, “My Aunt Toni: She’s little, but she’s got the heart of a lion.”
After Sorbera’s trial, the tight group of young men from the Shri Maha Kali Devi Mandir temple that supported Ramdular began to splinter. “The blame game started happening,” said Deonarain. “Like why did my cousin [Bholanauth] not help him out? Nobody was thinking logically.” They still say hello, but “it’s awkward,” Deonarain said.
Deonarain used the incident as motivation to get a fresh start. “You see things in a different light,” he said. “You see this could have been easily avoided if he didn’t go to the club, or if he wasn’t drinking that much.” said Deonarain. He started going to the gym and stopped smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Farmingdale State College, he got a job in IT at the Northwell Health hospital group in Long Island. He remains close with Ramdular’s mother. They spend Ramdular’s birthday and death anniversary together every year and he calls her every Mother’s Day. “They always say the good die young,” Deonarain said.
Sorbera’s mother, Karla Sorbera, is suffering from cancer. “Her heart breaks every day because she can’t believe this happened to her son,” said Brandstetter of her cousin. “She’s 60 years old and looks like she’s 90.”
In the interview at Sing Sing, Sorbera was still struggling with his fate. “It doesn’t hit you until you get the time,” he said. “I feel like they’re cutting my legs out from me. My youth is what I’ve got.” He was dressed in all green—the Sing Sing uniform. His delicate features, small teeth, and childlike smile brought a softness to his formidable physique. His eyes lit up when he talked about his two cats, and his bird named Samantha—a contrast to the graveness in his voice when he talked about the events of that night in March, 2013.
He lamented his 17-year sentence but said Sing Sing is a much better place than Rikers Island. He will be eligible for parole in 2027 when he’s 41 years old. Before the night of the fight, he had been saving up money to buy a house, working on his muscle cars and looking for a girlfriend. His “squirrel fund” instead went to paying his attorney. “You think I’m proud of this?” he asked in a pained voice. “I’m an idiot. This was the dumbest mistake of my life.” He regrets his actions at every point since leaving his job at Moka that night: punching Ramdular, turning himself in, not accepting an initial plea deal of 12 years. “In all honesty, if I had known he was going to die, I would have gone on the run—east, west, north south, anywhere,” Sorbera said. “I can’t stand prison.”