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Tourists Who Fought With Carmine’s Hostess Plead Not Guilty

Three women who were involved in an altercation with a hostess at a popular Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side were arraigned this week on assault and harassment charges.

The women, Kaeita Nkeenge Rankin, 44, and Tyonnie Keshay Rankin, 21, of Humble, Texas, and Sally Rechelle Lewis, 49, of Houston, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Manhattan Criminal Court. They were charged with one count each of third-degree assault, attempted assault and harassment, said Javier Solano, a lawyer for the women.

The charges stem from a melee that took place at the restaurant, Carmine’s, on Sept. 16. Details surrounding what ignited the brawl have been contested since the incident, which was recorded on cellphones and security cameras and gained widespread attention online.

“We greatly appreciate how seriously the district attorney’s office is taking this attack on our staff,” a spokesman for Carmine’s said in a statement. “Restaurant workers are part of our city’s lifeblood, and today sends a strong message that criminal acts like these will not be tolerated.”

People seeking to eat indoors at restaurants in New York have been required to show proof of vaccination since Sept. 13. The mandate is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to get more New Yorkers vaccinated to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The altercation took place days after the mandate went into effect. Shortly after it occurred, the police released a statement saying the women had attacked the hostess after she asked to see their vaccination cards. But two days later, lawyers for the restaurant and the women confirmed that they had, in fact, provided proof of vaccination.

A lawyer for one of the women told The New York Times that the hostess, who is Korean American, used a racial slur toward the guests, who are Black, and described the exchange as “mutual combat.”

“Everybody got it wrong,” Mr. Solano said. “The part they mostly got wrong was that all three of the women didn’t have vaccination cards or refused to show proof of vaccination, which just wasn’t true.”

Jeffrey Bank, the owner of Carmine’s, referred questions to a spokesman on Wednesday, but he said earlier that the video “clearly” showed the women from Texas provoked the attack.

“While the video shows the women talking to our managers and other employees, at no point did the women mention that any of the hosts ever made a racial slur,” he said. “This is because none of our hosts — all of whom are people of color — ever uttered such a slur.”

The hostess, who is 24 and has not been named publicly, said in a statement that being accused of using a racial slur was “even worse than being physically assaulted.”

“The accusation stating that I said a racial slur is unbelievable,” the hostess said in a statement through her lawyer, Aaron Mysliwiec. “I am a Korean immigrant, I was born in Seoul, Korea. I have the utmost respect for all BIPOC. I would never call anyone a racial slur.”

Security footage reviewed by The New York Times shows the women being let into the restaurant after showing proof of vaccination. Several minutes later, three men arrive to join their party and the women are seen meeting them outside. The women are then escorted back into the restaurant after two of the men fail to show vaccine cards and are denied entry. As they walk back in, they pass the hostess in the hallway. They turn back toward her, though because the footage has no sound, it is unclear why.

The footage then shows the hostess standing at a booth outside the restaurant with co-workers. The women come outside and one walks up to the hostess from behind and speaks in her ear before shoving her. The fight breaks out, and employees and other members of the party can be seen pulling the women apart.

Mr. Solano said his clients’ lives had been “turned upside down” since that day in September, and that they had received death threats via email. He said Dr. Rankin was afraid to go to her home because people have been “camped out” in front of her house.

The next court date is set for Nov. 18, Mr. Solano said. He added that while the maximum penalty for the charges was up to a year in jail, he was hopeful that the case would be dismissed.

“I have a lot of confidence in them to look past all the emotion, and look past the sort of press angle to this, and really look at this objectively,” he said.