Man Convicted In 2021 Murder Of Henry Tapia Sentenced To Life In Prison, Parole Eligible In 2036

Photo: Dean Kapsalis being sentenced in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn (Credit: Pool photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via AP)

Nearly three years after running down and killing Henry Tapia on Upland Street, the convicted assailant was sentenced to life in prison for what prosecutors described as “a hate crime.”

On Wednesday, Jan. 17 in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn, Hudson resident Dean Kapsalis, 58, was sentenced by Judge David Deakin to a life sentence after being found guilty in May 2023 of second-degree murder of Henry Tapia, 34, of Boston.

Henry Tapia (Credit: GoFundMe)

Speaking from the bench, Deakin said the sentence was “proportional to the crime,” adding that Kapsalis’ “record reflects essentially a lifelong tendency toward violence.”

The incident took place on Jan. 22, 2021 after both men exited their vehicles during what police and prosecutors described as a “road rage” incident. After a brief verbal altercation and as each returned to their vehicles, Kapsalis called Tapia a racial slur before entering his pickup and then struck and ran over Tapia, who was visiting his fiancee and child.

Belmont Police responded to a 911 call reporting that a man had been struck by a car in the area of 39-45 Upland Rd. Police located Tapia conscious but suffering from life-threatening injuries. Tapia was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he died from his injuries.

Having served three years in Middlesex County jail since his arrest, Kapsalis will be eligible to petition the state parole board in 2036 when he turns 70.

Guilty Verdict In Henry Tapia Murder Case: ‘A Senseless Tragedy Fueled By Hate And Anger’

Photo: Protests over the murder of Henry Tapia in January 2021

A Middlesex County jury on Monday found Hudson resident Dean Kapsalis guilty of the racially-motivated murder of Henry Tapia during a road rage incident on Upland Road in Belmont more than two years ago, according to a press release from Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.

Kapsalis, 56, was convicted of shouting a racial insult at Tapia, a 34-year-old man of color, before hitting him with a Dodge Dakota truck, running him over and killing him. While a Boston resident, Tapia was living with his partner and son in Belmont.

The jury’s verdict, announced on Monday, May 1 after two weeks of testimony and three days of deliberation, found Kapsalis guilty of second degree murder, violation of constitutional rights causing serious bodily injury, assault and battery by means of dangerous weapon (motor vehicle) causing serious bodily injury, and leaving the scene after causing injury.

Kapsalis will be held without bail until sentencing by Associate Justice of the Superior Court David Deakin on June 27, 2023.

“The murder of Henry Tapia is a senseless tragedy fueled by hate and anger. The fact that some of the last words Henry Tapia heard were a horrific racial insult meant to intimidate and threaten him based on the color of his skin is something we cannot tolerate,” said Ryan at a press conference with Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac after the verdict was rendered. Tapia’s death lead to local protests and ongoing conversations on racial bias in Belmont.

On Jan. 19, 2021, around 4:22 p.m., Belmont Police received a 911 call reporting that a man had been struck by a car in the area of 39-45 Upland Road. Police immediately responded and located Tapia conscious but suffering from life-threatening injuries. First responders provided emergency assistance until Belmont Rescue arrived on the scene. Tapia was transported from the scene to Massachusetts General Hospital where he later died from his injuries.

The subsequent investigation by Belmont and State Police revealed Kapsalis and Tapia had engaged in a verbal altercation on Upland Road. That argument wound down but as Tapia began to walk back toward his car, Kapsalis hurled a racial slur at him and then got into his pickup truck and drove it at Tapia, striking him and dragging him a short distance before Kapsalis fled the scene. He later turned himself in to police. At trial, the defense argued Tapia’s death was an accident. 

“What is significant about today’s verdict is that when we have incidents in Middlesex County motivated by bigotry and racism, that hatred will not be treated as a background fact. It will be charged and prosecuted separately. Although nothing that happens in Court can return Mr. Tapia to his grieving family, today’s convictions send a strong signal that those who commit hate fueled violence in this county will be held fully accountable,” said Ryan.

Opinion: Systemic Racism in Belmont; Three Resolutions For 2021

Photo: Participants at a rally in Belmont’s Cushing Square condemning the murder of Henry Tapia

By Joe Bernard

One month has passed since Henry Tapia was murdered in Belmont. More than 100 of his friends and neighbors attended the vigil to honor his life and condemn racial violence, during which Kimberly Haley-Jackson, vice chair of the Belmont Human Rights Commission, memorably captured the weight of the moment with four sobering words: “Yes, Belmont, you too.”

At this point in our country’s history, it might be naïve to call a racist hate crime “shocking”, yet it undeniably sent shockwaves through Belmont. It should not have taken a murder for us to recognize that racism exists in our community, but that is what happened. 

What do we do next?

Prosecuting the racist who killed Henry Tapia is necessary, but it is not enough. Condemning overt racism and hatred is necessary, but it is not enough. Calls for justice will fall short of their goal if we do not acknowledge and disrupt systemic racism. We must find the ways that our structures and systems protect White supremacy, and we must resolve to change them.

Resolution 1: Empower a Diversity Director for Belmont Public Schools

Belmont Educators of Color and Allies (BECA) is a group of Belmont educators that was established in 2018 with the end goal of eliminating racism in our schools. During 2020, BECA conducted research and surveys with the specific intention of creating action items for the future of Belmont Public Schools. On Sept. 15, they presented their recommendations to the School Committee and heads of the School Department.

One of their recommendations was to hire a Diversity Director. This recommendation is foundational, provided that the position is granted sufficient power within the administration to implement the other recommendations: improving staff diversity, decolonizing the curriculum, arranging antiracist training, and more.

In the proverbial “American dream”, education is intertwined with character values like perseverance and grit. Conventional wisdom uses this paradigm to judge students and their families. Yet, for decades, Black and Brown students have faced more challenges and fewer opportunities, creating the feedback loop of White superiority and the model minority myth.

The impact of this cannot be ignored. In fact, it must be used affirmatively in future hiring decisions. In the words of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Accordingly, Belmont Public Schools must commit to hiring a Black or Brown candidate for Diversity Director, whose lived experience can inform their approach to the real equity work of undoing and healing generations of violence, trauma, and inequity (for further reading, see We Want To Do More Than Survive by Bettina L. Love).

The good news is that the School Department’s preliminary FY22 Position Plan includes this position as one of 10.6 new full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) to be hired for the upcoming school year. But I have heard questioning from influential town leadership and town committees about whether or not to fund all new FTEs in the final FY22 budget, even before the presentations were made showing them as conditional upon a successful override vote.

As of now, there is no certainty that a Diversity Director will be hired anytime soon. Furthermore, there is no certainty that the Diversity Director will be given sufficient power to lead meaningful change, without which the position falls flat, little more than a token hire to check off a to-do list.

To address systemic racism in Belmont, we must ensure that the Diversity Director position is treated as the number one priority — not subjected to funding delays or budget cuts — and is promptly filled by hiring and truly empowering a person of color.

Resolution 2: Allow affordable housing, in addition to Affordable Housing

Chapter 40B, the state’s Affordable Housing law, is a frequent topic of conversation in town. For example, last September’s Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 256–5, the McLean zoning amendment that will allow a new 40B residential development to proceed. This was great news, as research has shown that segregation is reduced by building a mix of housing types and ensuring that it is affordable to a more diverse set of residents.

But while we continue to acknowledge and act upon the importance of (uppercase) Affordable Housing, let’s not sleep on the impact of (lowercase) affordable housing. That is, allowing the construction or conversion of modest two-family dwellings in place of single-family dwellings, to make our town more accessible to moderate and middle-income residents, welcoming more diversity without using Chapter 40B.

Single-family zoning laws in America have origins in blatant racism. Across the country in the early 20th century, suburbs used this type of zoning to segregate their neighborhoods without the explicit racial zoning that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional (for further reading, see The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein). Yet despite such disgraceful roots, single-family zoning is still venerated by some as the source of suburban “character”, vital to the very existence of suburbs. Similar rhetoric is commonplace in Belmont, and is even written into our Zoning By-Law, which states the purpose of our General Residence Zoning is “controlling density and preserving the character of the associated neighborhoods”.

The construction of a two-family dwelling is not allowed by right anywhere in Belmont. In Single Residence districts, it is strictly prohibited; in General Residence districts, it is allowed only under a Special Permit from the Planning Board, a deliberate extra hurdle. This zoning is a textbook example of what the Brookings Institution and the Boston Foundation recently called out as intentionally restricting the dynamic functioning of the Greater Boston housing market. “Greater Boston’s persistent residential segregation, both racial and economic, has been caused in part by legal prohibitions against the construction of diverse, lower-cost housing options like townhomes, duplexes and small apartment buildings.”

But while the Planning Board possesses a lot of power as the decision-making body, they are not making unilateral decisions to force housing production outcomes. Quite the opposite, I have observed that they are eager for public input and appreciative to receive it from any perspective. Therefore, it seems that some permitting decisions are simply reactions to the voices that they heard the loudest, which means that we need affordable housing advocates to be actively organizing petitions and attending public meetings.

To address systemic racism in Belmont, we must recognize that our 40B Affordable Housing projects are not “enough”, and actively advocate for more multi-family options that will allow an affordable housing market to function.

Resolution 3: Withdraw from Civil Service

The Civil Service system was established by state law in 1884 to eliminate favoritism in the hiring and promotion of public safety employees by providing a merit-based system for all municipalities that choose to participate. Belmont adopted Civil Service for our firefighters and police officers in 1915. The core components of the system are: 1) administering entrance/promotional exams and 2) restricting hires/promotions to a ranked list of candidates. Exam results are combined with other distinct criteria to generate the ranked list, from which a municipality is required to hire/promote from the top.

On its face, this may seem to be an equitable system. However, upon closer inspection of the criteria that are used, it becomes evident that the ranked list is more biased than objective. The demographics of law enforcement and firefighters skew heavily towards White males, which the Civil Service system does more to preserve than to change. Even departments that recognize their own lack of diversity and want to change cannot do so when they are legally bound to the restrictions of Civil Service.

In a July 2020 report and webinar titled The Diversity Deficit: Municipal Employees in Metro Boston, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) detailed key findings and best practices from an analysis of municipal employee demographics. MAPC is a regional planning agency established by state law in 1963 to promote smart growth and regional collaboration among the 101 cities and towns of Metro Boston, including Belmont. Among the best practices they found to address barriers to diversity in municipal workforces was withdrawal from Civil Service.

Why does the Civil Service system have a discriminatory effect? One reason is the veteran preference, which ranks veterans that pass the exam above nonveterans who scored higher. Despite any merits of this preference, the fact is that our veterans are overwhelmingly White males: 72 percent of veterans aged 18–34, compared to 36 percent of the total population aged 18–34, according to statewide census data. Another reason is the residency preference, which gives preference to a candidate that lived in Belmont for a full year before taking the entrance exam. Considering the annual base salary for an entry-level firefighter or police officer in Belmont is approximately $50,000, the lack of affordable housing and the residency preference work hand-in-hand to perpetuate existing demographics in public safety departments.

Withdrawal from Civil Service does not necessarily mean that a veteran preference or residency preference have to be eliminated. Such preferences can be included in the hiring policy that would replace it. But this policy can weigh other important factors as well, and removing the strict legal requirement to adhere to a ranked list effectively addresses the barriers to diversity while providing a larger applicant pool.

Belmont’s withdrawal from Civil Service has already been considered very recently, when the Select Board placed a question to that effect on the warrant for Town Meeting in September 2020. Vocal opposition to this warrant article was heard across town, particularly from our local police and firefighters unions. But it doesn’t have to be so adversarial and divisive. Many other cities and towns have withdrawn from Civil Service in recent years, so Belmont has plenty of examples to use for mapping our path forward.

While we can hope that town and union representatives find a mutually agreeable way to do so, to address systemic racism in Belmont, we must withdraw from Civil Service one way or another.

Renée Graham, during her keynote speech at Belmont’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Virtual Community Celebration, observed that people tend to think that racism is a problem elsewhere, not in their own community. Well, the fact that racism is a problem in our own community was brutally exposed. And yet, beyond the hatred of overt racism, we must also see that seemingly race-neutral policies and decisions are not harmless.

Belmont’s systemic racism will not be eliminated by inaction or good intentions. Antiracist progress must be made with deliberate policy decisions. The three that I have outlined here are not an exhaustive list nor the end of the road — there will be more work to be done — but we cannot let the magnitude of the problem discourage us from taking steps towards progress. These steps must be taken in 2021.

Joe Bernard is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 3. As the father of two Butler School students, his favorite community involvement is coaching youth sports, as well as volunteering for the PTA. He is an active member of Community Organized for Solidarity and Belmont Against Racism.

Upland Road Rage Charges Upped To Murder As Select Board Calls Special Public Forum For Wednesday

Photo: Participants in the rally to remember Henry Tapia.

The Belmont Select Board will be hosting a special community forum on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. to discuss the death of Henry Tapia who was killed in an alleged road rage incident a week ago on Upland Road.

On Monday, Jan. 25, at Cambridge District Court, the assailant, Dean Kapsalis, saw an additional charge of leaving the scene of an accident causing death added to his existing charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and a civil rights violation.

He was ordered held without bail with his next court appearance on March 1.

Nearly 200 residents and citizens joined Tapia’s friends and family for a rally to celebrate Tapia’s life on Thursday, Jan. 21 in Cushing Square. Kim Haley-Jackson, vice chair of the Belmont Human Rights Commission, Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac, Middlesex DA and Belmont resident Marion Ryan, Select Board’s Adam Dash, State Rep. Rogers, State Sen. Will Brownsberger each spoke to the impact of a race-based killing in a town that at times seems, as one attendee said, “devoid in discussing” the racial issues affecting the country.

“What I want to say to everyone is: Yes, Belmont. You too,” said Haley-Jackson.

“What I want to ask from my town is to think about your everyday actions. You think about your neighbors who don’t look like you. We are a community and not everyone is the same. We don’t all have the same belief system, we don’t all live the same lives but we all live together,” she said.

An agenda has not been published for the community forum. People can attend by going to the Zoom site: Meeting ID: 822 4577 0498

Tapia’s friends created a GoFundMe page to help his partner, Courtney Morton, and his three children. It has raised $152,800 as of Wednesday morning.

Tapia, a Black/Latino Boston resident living with his partner in Belmont, was killed when Kapsalis, a 54-year-old from Hudson who was living with his girlfriend on Upland Road, hit and dragged the victim after the pair squared off during what is alleged to have been a road rage incident sometime after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

In court Monday, prosecutors from the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office said witnesses heard as well as an alarm system recorded as Kapsalis “yelled racial slurs” at Tapia during the confrontation.

“There was a Ring doorbell near the scene of this incident, and it captured the audio of the interaction between the victim and the defendant,” said prosecutor Nicole Allain.

“The defendant can be heard calling the victim a series of derogatory terms, which culminated in his use of the N-word. Seconds later, that’s when the vehicle accelerates. A loud ‘thud’ noise can be heard, and the defendant’s red truck can be seen on video driving [away from] the scene,” said Allain.

MacIsaac’s said the first responding officers found Tapia conscious but in distress, reportedly saying “I can’t breathe.” Tapia was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital where he died soon after arriving.

“My officers were shocked to hear that he had died,” said MacIsaac. “It has effected the department.”