NEW YORK -- The mother of a mentally disturbed Vietnam veteran slain allegedly because he was homosexual left his funeral mass Saturday comforted by the outpouring of concern at his death, saying her son 'didn't die in vain.'
Mary Zappalorti, 75, said she hoped outrage over the killing of her 44-year-old son, James, described by neighbors as a quiet man devoted to his family, would foster a 'new era' of compassion for gays.
'My son is a martyr to his (homosexual) lifestyle. He didn't die in vain,' she said after her son's funeral at the St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Staten Island.
After the mass, officiated by Cardinal John O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, Zappalorti's body was to be cremated, church officials said.
Zappalorti, who suffered psychological damage in the war, was stabbed to death Monday night near a shanty he had built on an isolated beach near the home where he lived with his parents.
Authorities believe the slaying was motivated by hatred of homosexuals and have classified it as a bias-related attack. The fatality was the city's first since police began recording crimes against gays in 1980.
One gay activist group accused civic leaders, including Mayor David Dinkins, of insulting the gay community by not attending the mass.
'The mayor's absence today sends a strong message to the city: a hate crime against a gay person is not as serious as one motivated by race or religion,' said Matt Foreman, director of New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.
Dinkins and other city leaders have condemned the violent killing and urged the passage of the Hate Crimes Bill now stalled in the state Legislature.
One of Zappalorti's neighbors, Michael Taylor, 20, has been arrested on charges of second-degree murder in the slaying. A second suspect, Phillip Sarlo, 26, remained at large Saturday, police said.
After his arrest, Taylor allegedly told police the pair killed Zappalorti because they believed he was homosexual, authorities said.
Four years ago, both men were arrested in another anti-gay attack in which they kidnapped a man they thought was homosexual and stuffed him in the trunk of his car in a Staten Island parking lot, police said. The pair, along with two other men, were nabbed as the group debated whether to torch the car, authorities said.
In a plea bargain, both men pleaded guilty to robbery. Taylor, who was 16 at the time, served 18 months in jail, while Sarlo went to state prison and was paroled last February.
The killing of Zappalorti prompted an outpouring of sympathy from elected officials and gay rights groups, which urged support for a law that would increase the penalties for those convicted of bias-related crimes.
A U.S. Navy representative was at the mass and presented the slain man's mother with an American flag -- an honor generally given to soldiers killed in action or while on active duty.
Zappalorti had served aboard a supply ship off Vietnam until he was discharged in April 1965 following a nervous breakdown after more than two years of service, officials said.
Ladonna Reitner, a neighbor, said Zappalorti was a friendly man who spent hours by the beach planting flowers. 'He didn't deserve what happened,' she said.