When Chris Ver-Haest left a friend’s house in north London on 16 July 2017 he was going to buy cigarettes and water from the local shop. It was 10.45am on a Sunday. He would never return.
He had stayed at the house the previous night after an impromptu farewell party – a last hurrah before moving to Madrid. He was beaming. The possibilities of what lay ahead stretched out like a childhood summer holiday.
There was another reason to beam: Amid the evening’s wine and laughter he had met a young man. They kissed. They planned to meet up again.
But 15 minutes after leaving the house, he would be lying in the road in a foetal position. His right leg would be broken in four places; his ankle smashed. He never made it to Madrid.
Instead, five months later, Ver-Haest would be standing in a nearby court testifying against the man responsible, who would be facing a charge just below attempted murder: grievous bodily harm with intent. His name is Kamil Snios. He had ensured that Ver-Haest paid for Snios’s hatred of gay men with almost everything he has.
Ver-Haest’s leg has not recovered. It never will.
The hostility gay people face had never been a particular preoccupation for Ver-Haest. Being Chinese-British, it was racist abuse he suffered growing up, and when he heard about homophobic hate crimes the magnitude of what they meant did not register properly.
Ver-Haest changed a lot in 15 minutes.
Five weeks after the attack, he sits on a bench in east London with his smashed, swollen leg stretched out, describing the events and its aftermath to BuzzFeed News.
His was just one of 80,000 hate crime incidents in the last year, with 1 in 5 LGBT people saying they have been targeted. Ver-Haest wants others to know what such hatred does and from where it comes.
“There needs to be a way that people really see what’s happening,” he says.
There is something else, though, that emerges during the hours we spend together: a picture of hatred’s inverse.
People helped Ver-Haest in ways he could never have imagined. And when he took to the witness stand, there was someone still rooting for him, months later: the young man he met the night before the attack.
This is a story about hate and love, and how they derail everything.
On the weekend of 15 July, Ver-Haest, 36, was only back in London for a few days before heading to Madrid.
After nearly 20 years working in hospitality he needed a complete change, something that would help people develop. He had embarked on a course to teach English as a foreign language.
“I wanted to do something more rewarding,” he says on the bench in Hackney five weeks after the attack, in a clearing set back from the roadside. He wears shorts and a white shirt. He looks younger than his age but has a gently confident voice that carries a sort of refined authority.
It is the beginning of what would become a five-month conversation. At this stage, Ver-Haest speaks in an almost detached, factual way, shifting between past and present tense. He talks about growing up in Suffolk and London, and says his family background was complicated. Depression beset him as a young child.
He starts to describe the events leading up to the attack.
With his teacher training completed and a job secured in Madrid, Ver-Haest was on his way to a new life. He thought nothing of the get together that night in Tottenham: old friends mostly, but with some of their friends too. One of whom was the man he kissed. His name is Santiago. Although only 20, he was more than attractive, and intriguing enough to pique Ver-Haest’s interest. There was another man he hardly knew there too, a straight man called Adam.
The next morning Adam and Ver-Haest set off up Stamford Road, just off Broad Lanes, to pick up supplies from a corner shop. On the way they noticed something unusual: a house party still raging on the first floor of a nearby building. Noise was wafting from the balcony.
As they passed by, chatting, Ver-Haest gave Adam an affectionate pat on the back: the gesture of a newfound friend.
They picked up milk, water, and cigarettes, and started heading back.
“As soon as we get onto Stamford Road, he [Kamil Snios] is on the opposite side of the street and walks directly towards us. He looked like he was on a mission.”
Snios was muscular and broad-set with a shaved head, jeans, trainers, and a navy zip top. As he neared the two men he jutted his arm out straight from the shoulder, holding a cap in his hand: an odd gesture, Ver-Haest thought.
“He looked wired, in a kind of tunnel vision, like he’d been up drinking all night.” Ver-Haest also thinks drugs were in his system, so crazed and otherworldly was his demeanour.
“He said, ‘Have we got a problem?’ I was closest to him, and was like, ‘No mate’ – trying to not engage or make eye contact. The cap was about head height from me and he hit me in the face with it. Then he starts shouting and pushing.”
The shouting was in Polish – Snios’s mother tongue – so Ver-Haest did not know what he was saying nor have time to consider what was about to happen.
“He kicked my right leg.” This was not an ordinary kick, he says, but one so precise and destructive that it seemed to him to be a learned, specialist technique with one purpose: to obliterate. It knocked Ver-Haest to the ground.
“I didn’t register the level of pain,” he says, “but he broke the leg straight away.” It fractured right through.
This was just the beginning. Snios kept kicking. He focused on one target: Ver-Haest’s lower right leg. He kicked and kicked, below the knee, across the shin, around the ankle, again and again and again, a frenzy of strikes, breaking and smashing each bone, one by one.
In between, Snios grabbed their bag of shopping and threw it to the floor. At first, Ver-Haest had no idea what the motivation was.
“I didn’t really know what was happening apart from me being on the floor and thinking, ‘I need to get up and get away.’ But when I tried to get up I couldn’t understand why my leg was just buckling.”
A passerby – a middle-aged man – tried to intervene and help Ver-Haest and Adam, but gauging the ferocity of the attack, quickly left.
When Ver-Haest did manage to stand up on his left leg, Snios reacted quickly. “He came over and kicked that one out, so I’m on the floor again.” Ver-Haest tried again, but each time Snios would knock him back down.
As he was doing this, another man was shouting in Polish from the nearby first-floor balcony where the party noise had emanated.
“He was cheering him on, whooping like it was some kind of spectator sport, laughing every time he sees me get knocked over.”
A conversation ensued between Snios and his cheerleader – a type of call and response, again in Polish, but the overall meaning of which was clear to Ver-Haest. The other man was encouraging him, goading him, revelling in every blow.
“He was so excited and elated to be seeing what he was seeing,” he says, as if “this is the best entertainment ever”.
When Ver-Haest was on the ground, incapacitated, Snios turned on Adam.
“He got him on the floor once or twice – same move,” he says referring to the kick. But it did not land in the same way, failing to break Adam’s leg, leaving him able to stand up again.
“At some point Adam is able to come and help me,” says Ver-Haest. “I put my arm around his shoulder and tried to lightly put my foot on the ground and it’s so painful I pulled the two of us over. I tried to do it again. Snios comes over and kicks my leg again. I tried putting my arm around Adam’s shoulder two or three times but we just ended up on the floor, either because Snios kicked us down or I couldn’t take the pain.”
Ver-Haest tried reasoning with Snios, telling him his leg was broken, to stop, that they would go away. “I was trying not to appear like too much of a victim.”
He then climbed on Adam’s back hoping they could escape that way. “But my foot is loose, it’s bobbing around and that’s so painful I pull us down because I can’t take it. I can feel the bones moving in there; it’s completely loose.”
What Snios did not know was that from this point a local resident was filming the incident on a mobile phone.
Ver-Haest resorted to crawling; dragging himself along the ground by his hands, with Adam helping, pulling him – anything to try to escape round the corner. But then another element to the attack crept in.
“Snios comes up and because I’m in that [sitting] position his crotch is at my head height. He starts to unbuckle his trousers. I didn’t know what he’s saying because it’s in Polish but the tone has changed.”
Despite the language barrier, Ver-Haest sensed what Snios was saying. It was, he says, a threat of sexual violence but with the snarling suggestion that Ver-Haest would enjoy it, as if to say: This is what you want, isn’t it?
“Something stopped him,” says Ver-Haest – he did not undo his trousers any further. And seemingly exhausted after such a sustained attack, Snios took the cigarettes Ver-Haest had just bought, waved them over his head in a way that one of the officers later described as “like a trophy” and walked off, back towards the block of flats.
Ver-Haest and Adam managed to drag themselves around the corner. But still only 50 metres away, Ver-Haest was terrified Snios would come back for them.
Adam rang for an ambulance. A few minutes later, a passing police car stopped to help. They called for assistance – the culprit was dangerous and still just metres away. Another two police cars arrived soon after.
Armed with a description of both Snios and the man cheering from the balcony, four officers went into the building to make an arrest.
Meanwhile, Ver-Haest was being stretchered into an ambulance and driven to Homerton hospital. There an officer took his statement as doctors cut his trousers and put his leg into traction.
“They had two people extending my leg out to try to get all my bones in a relatively straight position and then the third person applied all the plaster of Paris,” he says.
X-rays revealed multiple, complete fractures in his tibia and fibula bones, which lead from the knee to the ankle: a displaced fracture to his distal tibia, a displaced fracture to the tibia shaft, and a displaced fracture to the proximal fibula. As well as the clean breaks there were splinters of bone unattached, with the ankle smashed into fragments. It would take major surgery to hold everything together.
But first, late that night, as Ver-Haest lay in his hospital bed, he received a phone call from a police officer that would confirm his suspicion: They were targeted for a reason.
“He said they’d caught the guy [Snios] and was shocked because he admitted very clearly what his motivation was. He said he had seen us walking down the street and thought we were a gay couple and was disgusted by it, and that’s why he did it. The police officer said he’d never heard anything like that in his 17 years.”
It wasn’t the homophobia itself that was new to the officer. It was, says Ver-Haest, the fact that he had never known anyone to believe so completely that they were in the right.
But it was a confession, not only to the violence but also to the motivation. There was now no doubt: This was a hate crime.
Two days later, Santiago, the guy Ver-Haest had met at the party, came to visit him in hospital. His presence would prove transformative over the coming days and weeks.
The surgery on Ver-Haest’s leg required a titanium nail to be inserted down the length of his tibia, with a succession of screws in his leg and ankle clamping fragments of bone together. Extensive physiotherapy would be necessary almost immediately.
But the nurses, he says, were late giving him painkillers before the first session.
“Half an hour later, the physio gives me this [walking] frame and I manage to get up slowly, support myself on the frame but it’s blindingly painful. I get about five feet away before I need to get back.” At the end of the session, knowing what the intensity of the pain was about to unleash, Ver-Haest asked the physio to close the curtain.
“I got as small as I could and wept for half an hour,” he says. “It was devastating.”
There was only one thing that helped him cope. “I thought about the guy I’d met at the party,” he says. “I thought about his face. That simple joy of meeting someone as lovely as he was, was the only refuge I could find at that point.”
Ver-Haest was in hospital – on seven types of medication – for five days before the next stage: recuperation. His surgeon said at the time that although the injuries could take a year to heal, ending any hope of moving to Spain in the near future, they would eventually do so. Ver-Haest had no idea how optimistic this prognosis would prove to be. And to begin with he had to grapple with the volume of practical obstacles lining up.
Having given up the lease on his flat to move to Madrid, Ver-Haest now had nowhere to live, and without the job in Spain or the ability to work due to his injury, no money. He took to staying with a succession of friends, a week here, two weeks there, sitting all day on their sofa, watching television with his leg elevated, trying to take care of himself.
Santiago would come to visit him wherever he was. “That’s been truly lovely,” says Ver-Haest. “He was totally there and had to sit and try to support me.”
But no one could be there all the time, when the daily struggles of having an unusable leg, surgical boot, and crutches became overwhelming. Ver-Haest had to relearn everything: how to wash, cook, shop, and eat.
“I could heat something in a microwave but can I get it to where I want to eat it? No. I have to eat standing on one leg or perched on the counter holding it in one hand.” On one occasion, after heating soup in a microwave he tried to carry it to the sofa, but dropped it, scalding himself. His crutches slipped on the spilt liquid, flooring him once again.
When he describes his attempts to seek help from the agencies designed to assist, it conjures the same image: crutches slipping.
An automated text arrived from Victim Support shortly after the attack informing him the agency would contact him properly within seven days. It did not. When Ver-Haest eventually got through he was offered phone counselling. But he was in a supermarket when the counsellor rang. “I said, can you please call back in five minutes? They said, ‘No. How about I call you next Thursday?’” That was nine days later.
They did not call him the following Thursday, he says, but five days after that – two weeks later. He lodged a formal complaint and received an apology but for Ver-Haest it was too late. Meanwhile, Galop, the organisation for victims of homophobic hate crime, was understanding and supportive, he says, but was only able to signpost him to other services. One of which was housing and employment benefits.
“They [the government] have said they’re going to pay me ESA [employment and support allowance], which is £73 per week,” he says, “but I haven’t had anything yet. I don’t know what they expected me to do for these first two months of having no money coming in.” Without a credit card, he says, he would be destitute. His debt began to rise; he set up a GoFundMe page.
And with no housing benefit, no savings for a deposit on a rented flat, compensation for such injuries taking months to arrive, and a social housing shortage, there was only one option, a housing charity suggested to Ver-Haest: Go to a homeless shelter.
At this point, a couple he had only met four times stepped in. They offered him their spare room for free.
“It’s really touching,” he says, his voice cutting out for the first time. “They’re a straight couple. They came to see me one time and brought me flowers, chocolates, took me out to lunch, and then offered me this room. I was bowled over.”
A couple of months later, Ver-Haest’s brother took over, letting him live in a flat he owned but had been renting out, encouraging Ver-Haest, where possible, to make improvements to the place – a project to rebuild his strength. It renewed their relationship.
Psychologically, the ripples from the attack have been complex. When we first meet, Ver-Haest is focusing on the practical, being matter-of-fact and coping well. But a few weeks before the trial, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD.
“I was having panic attacks,” he says in December. “Anxiety. Hyper-vigilance. Flashbacks.” He says he would start to panic in public, as if the world he once perceived as benign or at least indifferent was now a potentially constant threat. Waiting in tube stations, he would become terrified that someone would push him in front of the train.
“I am altered by this,” he says. “I have a lot of work to do to get things back.”
He has begun receiving therapy, alongside regular physiotherapy. But some of the damage is less tangible, and deeper, cutting to the heart of what a hate crime does.
“Before this happened I didn’t live in fear that I would be attacked for my sexuality,” he says. “I felt like I didn’t have to define myself through my sexuality. But now I have to think about it. I have to think about how this affects everyone. It’s not just gay people who might be attacked – my friend wasn’t gay and he was attacked.”
He thinks many in the wider public who haven’t experienced such a crime will share his previous ignorance of the consequences. This need for a wider understanding, he says, is what has moved him to speak out.
“It has devastated this period in my life,” he says. “I’m living this every day. It affects everything I do. I’m 100% reliant on other people. I can’t work at the moment and everything I think about doing in the future is affected by this.”
He pauses for a moment, and returns to Snios and the forthcoming court case. “He needs to pay for it.”
But it isn’t only about Snios. There was also the man on the balcony, who has never been found. Ver-Haest is confused and frustrated that the police did not find and arrest him alongside Snios when they went into the flat. But the reasons for this and for the attack itself soon become clear.
On 18 December, Snios’s trial began at Wood Green crown court. At an initial hearing in August, he had pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of grievous bodily harm (GBH) but not guilty to the much graver one of GBH with intent: a crime that denotes the perpetrator not only inflicted considerable injury but meant to do so.
GBH with intent is considerably harder to prove and carries a much higher sentence of up to 16 years in jail. For Ver-Haest, ensuring Snios was found guilty of intent and locked up for as long as possible, to prevent further attacks, was crucial.
In the courtroom, Snios was led into the dock in a grey sweatshirt and jeans. Ver-Haest stood behind a curtain to give evidence – visible to the jury but not to Snios, who sat impassive throughout, staring straight ahead, his chin tilted upwards.
Ver-Haest recounted everything that happened on 16 July: the slapping, the kicking, the jeering from the balcony:
“He’s kicking me everywhere…there was so much pain…I hit the floor again and the pain is so much worse; blinding like a flash of light.”
The video footage was shown to the court. It begins near the end of the attack. Ver-Haest is on the ground, trying in vain to get up, with Snios standing over him, with laughing bellowing over the scene from the balcony.
But it is only when Detective Constable Mark Nicholls, the officer in charge of the case, takes to the stand that what lies beneath it all is revealed.
Nicholls and the prosecution barrier read the transcript of the police interview the day Snios was arrested. It was translated from Polish.
The interview began with Snios saying he had been drinking since 6pm the previous day, and had also smoked cannabis. He confirmed that he had moved to London from Poland three years ago and works in removals.
That morning, he said: “I came across two boys who were showing me strange things…motions and movements that are typical of ladies.” The men, Adam and Ver-Haest, were “behaving like poofs”.
He continued trying to describe what he saw in the men and adds, “Let’s just call them by their names. They’re poofs…they offended me.” Nicholls asked him how they offended him.
Snios mentioned a “kiss and a hand gesture”, adding, “This is inhuman.”
Being a homosexual man is, asked DC Nicholls, inhuman?
Where does this hatred come from?
“It’s not hatred,” Snios replied. Instead, he said, “It’s a deliberate provocation.”
So any form of homosexual act is inhuman and unacceptable?
Did they kiss in front of you?
“No,” said Snios, adding that it’s “not normal for guys to kiss where children are around” and “I don’t have anything against them but I don’t want them showing it off.” He was, he said, “provoked”.
Snios refused to believe that Ver-Haest’s leg had been broken, denied that anyone had been shouting or cheering from the balcony, and refused to give up the names of the men who had been in the flat.
Without his cooperation and with several people there, the police were unable to find the man on the balcony.
When Snios took to the witness stand the following day, speaking through an interpreter throughout, he made an extraordinary case, using a line of defence now notorious in legal and LGBT circles: the gay panic defence.
In the 1990s and early 2000s in the United States in particular, some people accused of murdering gay men claimed they did it because the victim made a pass at them and they panicked, attacking reflexively. It worked on some occasions, leading to acquittals, which sparked widespread outrage.
In English law, this is not a valid defence. But in court, Snios claimed – having not mentioned it in the police interview – that that morning when he saw Adam and Ver-Haest they were waving and gesturing to Snios and one of them “bent over and smacked his bottom”. They were, said Snios, “trying to propose something” and that he went over to try to find out what, when a fight ensued.
The comments he made during the police interview about gay men being inhuman were, he said in court, a “misunderstanding”. Asked about the fact that he cried towards the end of his police interview, Snios replied: “I feel sorry for my children because they are hurting the most.”
His tears were not for Ver-Haest.
No one mentioned in court that Adam is straight, and that as such it would make the chances of him and Ver-Haest propositioning Snios zero. Snios’s barrister did, however, argue that her client could not be homophobic because he has twice been to gay pride.
At the end of the three-day trial the prosecution read out a statement from Ver-Haest. It described the impact the attack has had: the movements he can no longer make, the pain that still rages and keeps him awake, the medications he still has to take, the jobs he cannot accept, the fear and vulnerability he feels in public every day. Only then did Snios look ashamed.
After three and a half hours of deliberation the jury returned on Tuesday this week with a unanimous verdict: guilty.
Sentencing Snios on Wednesday morning, the trial judge, Gregory Perrins, told him: “You believed they were homosexual and attacked them for that reason. This was a crime of hate.”
He added that he rejected the suggestion from the defence barrister that Snios did not have a problem with gay people, reminding the defendant that he told police he considered their perceived sexuality “inhuman”. Such views are “repugnant and vile”, he said, and “have no place in a modern, tolerant society”.
The judge concluded Snios “showed no remorse” and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Afterwards, Ver-Haest tells BuzzFeed News how relieved he was, how much it meant to secure a sentence of this length. He then texts his reaction in full:
“It’s hard to take in… Both of us will live with the results of his hatred and cruelty for the rest of our lives. I don’t hold out much hope for his improvement whilst serving his sentence but at least he’ll have time to consider his actions.”
Ver-Haest begins updating BuzzFeed News on his medical situation. His consultant has changed the prognosis for his leg. “It will never be the same again,” says Ver-Haest. The movement in his ankle in particular will not return to how it was before. And, said the doctor, in 20 years the cartilage surrounding what was operated on will degrade leaving him with osteoarthritis.
“The trauma wasn’t really what happened,” he says. “The trauma is what I face every day – the aftermath.”
He is still on £73 per week. He still has flashbacks. And with slow progress and considerable amounts of psychotherapy and physiotherapy, it will be at least another six months before he can contemplate going to Madrid.
But the people in his life have been wonderful, he says, showing love “from corners I didn’t expect”. His recovery, overall, is a “work in progress”, he says. “My sense of the world and my place in it is different but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.”
There is something else, he says.
The night Ver-Haest gave evidence he met up with Santiago. He wanted to thank him for the support he had showed when he needed it most – support that kept him going in the darkest moments. Ver-Haest pauses for a second, a flash that conjures an antidote to all he that has endured: “He’s still there.”