NEW YORK -- When a Spanish tourist was abruptly pummeled in the head by a hammer-wielding stranger on a park bench last week, there seemed to be little mystery about who attacked him – a suspect was arrested nearby and confessed, authorities said.
But now the case may not be so straightforward: Prosecutors are investigating whether the suspect gave authorities a phony name after a chess master in Canada told them he believes the man is using his identity.
At the moment, the suspect is being held without bail on attempted murder and other charges relating to the hammer attack; he hasn't been charged with any other crime. The Manhattan district attorney's office is looking into the false-identity allegation, a person familiar with the case said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Legal Aid Society, which is representing the suspect, had no immediate comment.
The tourist, Hugo Alejandre of Barcelona, was eating lunch with his girlfriend in a park near City Hall on July 30 when a man sitting next to them pulled out a hammer and started bashing Alejandre on the head and back with it, prosecutors said. Bystanders ultimately wrestled the tool away; Alejandre was treated for a spinal fracture and deep cuts, prosecutors said.
The chess player, John C. Yoos, 43, of Vancouver, says he knew nothing about the attack until a friend contacted him Monday after seeing a news report about it. The friend thought it was a coincidence that a man of Yoos' same name and age had been arrested in New York, Yoos said in a phone interview Tuesday.
He looked at photos accompanying news stories about the attack, recognized the suspect as an acquaintance from years ago – and started calling authorities.
"It's a little bit disconcerting because, obviously, it's been widely reported. It's my name and my age on it," he said by phone. "I'd be very happy if this was clarified soon – that this is not, in fact, me."
The suspect gave police the same name – complete with middle name – and birth date as the chess player has. Yoos, a U.S. citizen, said he was told the man also gave his Social Security number, though he doesn't know how the man might have obtained it.
At an arraignment last week, Legal Aid lawyer Alyssa Gamliel said the man was unemployed and had lived in New York for two years. A neighbor at his Brooklyn address told the New York Post he had lent the man a hammer a few months before.
Gamliel said the suspect had only one prior, minor brush with the law, involving an unpaid fine, in Hawaii in 2008. Honolulu court records show an April 2008 jaywalking case against a man who gave Yoos' name and birth date; he gave police an address in Haiku, Hawaii. He was fined an as-yet-unpaid $100, court records show.
Yoos, the chess player, who sometimes goes by Jack, works in finance and hasn't lived anywhere but Canada since 1999, he said. He is regularly mentioned on chess sites chronicling tournament play there.
The tall, bald man in the news photos was someone the chess player knew casually through mutual friends in Winnepeg and Vancouver and hasn't seen in about a decade, he said. Efforts to reach the man Yoos named, or the man's relatives, were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Yoos said he had recently had his credit checked in Canada, and there were no signs that anyone else might be using his identity.
Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.