Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City man charged in NYC attack claims he was provoked

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A Winnipeg man living under a bogus identity in New York claims he was provoked into committing a seemingly random violent attack on a Spanish tourist.

Court documents obtained by the Free Press provide new details in the July 2012 incident that made headlines around the world and remains before the courts.

The tourist was beaten with a hammer as he sat on a park bench near New York city hall in Manhattan, eating lunch with his girlfriend. Hugo Alejandre, 31, was visiting the city from Barcelona. He suffered a fractured skull and other serious head injuries. Police, with the help of several witnesses, arrested a suspect at the scene and identified the man as 43-year-old John C. Yoos of Brooklyn.

However, officials eventually learned the man's true identity was Douglas Epp, 39, of Winnipeg. Epp is in custody in New York and faces an attempted-murder charge and the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence.

"They called me a gay and a Nazi. That guy called me a Nazi and I just lost it," Epp told police following his arrest, according to documents filed in his case. Epp claims he was job-hunting on the day of the attack when he sat down next to Alejandre and his girlfriend, who allegedly began talking about him.

"They had some rude words," said Epp. He claims to have found the hammer sitting under the park bench he was sitting on, which he used to bash the victim at least 10 times. "Something inside me just snapped."

Reports say prosecutors have stated in New York courts it was Epp -- and not the victim -- who made a series of racist comments. Epp's lawyer has since told court they may fight the criminal charges on the grounds of a psychiatric defence, saying Epp may not be criminally responsible for his actions. No trial dates have been set.

How and when Epp became Yoos -- and fooled authorities into believing him -- remains a mystery. The real John C. Yoos, 43, is an accomplished Canadian chess player living in Vancouver. He attended high school with Epp in Winnipeg and used to socialize with him, even after both men headed west to B.C. in the late 1990s. But they haven't crossed paths in at least seven years.

Yoos told the Free Press last year he learned of the situation when a friend called him, saying a man with the same name and age had just been arrested thousands of kilometres away.

"He was kind of kidding me about it, like ha ha, what a coincidence," said Yoos. He felt it was a little too close for comfort, especially given the fact he admits to having an unusual name.

Yoos conducted his own online search and was stunned to see the photo accompanying the arrest story. The tall, bald man was Epp. He immediately contacted police and learned Epp had also provided Yoos's birth date and U.S. Social Security number.

"It's clear to me now he's been living as me in the United States for a minimum of four years," said Yoos, who is a dual citizen. "He became me, likely so he could live in the U.S."

The case also hit home for several Winnipeggers who also grew up with Epp and found themselves speaking on the phone with Secret Service officials who routinely probe cases of identity theft. Former friends told the Free Press Epp went to high school in St. James, graduated and then began moving around a lot, with stops in Vancouver and Hawaii. They say Epp was living "on the streets" after falling on hard times, but would still take the time to send an annual Christmas card to his friends.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2013 B2

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