Woman Who Tackled Black Teenager at SoHo Hotel Is Arrested

By Mihir Zaveri

The woman, Miya Ponsetto, who falsely accused the son of a prominent jazz musician of stealing her phone, was taken into custody in California.

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A woman can be seen yelling at the 14-year-old in video captured at the Arlo Hotel in New York City on Saturday by his father, the jazz musician Keyon Harrold. Mr. Harrold said her phone was later found in an Uber.CreditCredit...Keyon Harrold
Mihir Zaveri

Law enforcement authorities in California on Thursday arrested a woman who had been caught on video tackling a Black teenager in the lobby of a boutique hotel in SoHo after falsely accusing him of stealing her cellphone, officials said.

The arrest of the woman, Miya Ponsetto, by sheriff’s deputies in Ventura County, Calif., was confirmed by the New York Police Department. It came after more than a week of mounting pressure on the department to make an arrest in the case and with New York officers taking the unusual step of traveling to California to interview her.

It was not clear what charges Ms. Ponsetto, 22, faced in connection with the hotel incident, which happened on Dec. 26. Prosecutors have declined to discuss the case, noting earlier on Thursday that charges had not been filed.

The episode at the hotel was yet another instance of Black people being confronted with baseless accusations while going about their daily lives. It has drawn comparisons to an incident in May when a white woman called 911 to falsely claim that a Black bird-watcher in Central Park was threatening her life.

The video was taken and posted on social media by Keyon Harrold, a prominent jazz musician, who was staying at the Arlo hotel with his 14-year-old son, Keyon Harrold, Jr.

In the video, Ms. Ponsetto can be seen confronting Mr. Harrold and his son after they walk into the hotel lobby, insisting without evidence that Keyon Jr. has her cellphone. Ms. Ponsetto can be seen asking a hotel manager to help her, after which the manager identifies himself and asks Keyon Jr. to produce a cellphone, in an apparent attempt to verify Ms. Ponsetto’s claim.

Surveillance footage released by the police last week shows Ms. Ponsetto running after Keyon Jr. and tackling him. Ms. Ponsetto was trying to rummage through Keyon Jr.'s pockets, Mr. Harrold said.

Mr. Harrold said he was told by the hotel that an Uber driver found Ms. Ponsetto’s phone later in the day, and she picked it up from the hotel.

Ms. Ponsetto, in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that was conducted hours before she was arrested, said she did not handle the situation properly.

“I could have approached the situation differently or maybe not yelled at him like that and made him feel, you know, maybe some sort of inferior way,” Ms. Ponsetto told CBS’s Gayle King. The interview aired on Friday morning.

Ms. Ponsetto also said that her actions were not racially motivated, presenting herself as a young woman who reacted poorly.

“I’m a 22-year-old girl,” said Ms. Ponsetto, whose lawyer, Sharen H. Ghatan, was seated next to her. “I don’t — racism is — how is one girl accusing a guy about a phone a crime?”

Ms. Ponsetto acknowledged that surveillance video did show her attacking Keyon Jr. She did not directly apologize, however, or take responsibility for those actions, saying only that she regretted it if she had made Keyon Jr. “feel as if I assaulted him, or if I hurt his feelings or the father’s feelings.”

Over the course of the interview, which was conducted remotely, Ms. Ponsetto grew increasingly agitated and confrontational. At one point, as Ms. King pressed her on taking more responsibility for her actions, Ms. Ponsetto held up a hand to the camera as if to silence her.

“All right, Gayle,” Ms. Ponsetto said. “Enough.”

Ms. Ghatan then leaned over to her client, whispering: “No, stop. Stop.”

Capt. Eric Buschow of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said that Ms. Ponsetto had been arrested in Piru, Calif., a small town about 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles where she has been living.

Ms. Ponsetto was driving to her neighborhood at around 4:30 p.m. local time when deputies and New York police officers pulled her over, Captain Buschow said. Ms. Ponsetto refused to get out of the car at first and slammed a door on a deputy before being pulled from the car and taken into custody, he said.

Ms. Ponsetto was being held in the Ventura County jail on Thursday night with an extradition hearing to be held soon, Captain Buschow said.

After the arrest, Ms. Ghatan said that she was “very concerned” for Ms. Ponsetto’s emotional well being and that she had not heard from her client since Thursday afternoon.

ImageKeyon Harrold appeared at a rally last month with the Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and Benjamin Crump, right, a prominent civil rights lawyer. 
Keyon Harrold appeared at a rally last month with the Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and Benjamin Crump, right, a prominent civil rights lawyer. Credit...Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Ms. Ponsetto had been the subject of public scrutiny and speculation about possible criminal charges since the video emerged. According to public records, she faced unrelated criminal charges in California, including a lewd conduct charge in Los Angeles County involving an incident in February and a charge of driving while intoxicated in Ventura County following an incident in October.

Prosecutors in California did not immediately provide more details.

In an interview on Wednesday with The New York Times, Ms. Ghatan said that Ms. Ponsetto regretted her actions and was seeking to apologize in person to Mr. Harrold and his family.

Ms. Ghatan said Ms. Ponsetto was not targeting Mr. Harrold or his son because of their race. She is of Puerto Rican and Vietnamese descent and does not identify as white, Ms. Ghatan said.

“She’s not trying to make any racial statement,” Ms. Ghatan said. “She’s a female herself of mixed cultural descent. She’s not some blond-haired, blue eyed privileged white lady. She literally just wanted to get her phone back.”

Ms. Ponsetto, who works in an office for a health-related company, was visiting her father who lives in the New York City area over the holidays when she lost her cellphone, Ms. Ghatan said. Ms. Ponsetto was a guest at the hotel at some point during the holiday week, Ms. Ghatan said, but it was not clear why she was there when the confrontation took place.

Ms. Ponsetto saw Keyon Jr. with a phone and thought it was hers, according to Ms. Ghatan.

“What happened, happened,” Ms. Ghatan said. “Would she do it again? No. It was purely out of her being anxious, stressed, cornered, feeling helpless, lost, alone, unsupported.”

In the CBS interview, Ms. Ponsetto first said that she had been “approaching the people that had been exiting the hotel” because she thought anyone leaving the premises could have been the one who had stolen her phone.

When pressed, she acknowledged that she had not stopped everyone she had seen, but she did not explain why she singled out Keyon Jr.

Mr. Harrold said Ms. Ponsetto’s actions demanded more than an apology. He said that both her behavior and the hotel manager’s actions reflected a systemic problem where Black people — and Black teenagers in particular — are seen as threats or outsiders.

Mr. Harrold described his son as innocent and impressionable — “an aspiring music producer, drummer, artist, who loves being around his friends.” But, he said, he is too often not seen that way. “He’s made out to be criminal. He’s made out to be a threat. That’s the thing that needs to change.”

The Police Department has said that it was not treating the confrontation as a “bias incident.” But it has drawn widespread attention as a striking example of racial profiling.

Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired New York City police sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the pressure from the public on the Police Department “is just immense here,” particularly given the recent protests against systemic racism following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He said that it was a rarity for detectives to travel across the country for anything other than murder or cold case investigations.

“This is an unusual event that is driven not only by media, but by social media,” he said.

At a news conference last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said it has “almost become tragically comical how much you can rely on the fact that someone will unjustly accuse a young man of color in America.”

“When someone does something like this, they have to suffer consequences,” he said. “And there needs to be real action here by the criminal justice system to make sure there are consequences in this case.”

At a separate news conference, the Rev. Al Sharpton and civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who is representing Mr. Harrold, called on prosecutors and the police to bring charges.

“This has larger implications,” Mr. Crump said. “It was Emmett Till who was falsely accused and racially profiled that led to him being killed.”

Arlo, which has two hotels in the city, advertises its SoHo location as a trendy destination with a rooftop bar and Hudson River views.

The hotel has apologized to Mr. Harrold and his son in a statement. While the hotel said the manager called the police to report the incident and hotel security had stepped in, “more could have been done to de-escalate the dispute.”

Mr. Harrold, who has performed with artists including Beyoncé, Rihanna and Jay-Z, said he had been staying at the Arlo since mid-December.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research and Michael Gold contributed reporting.