ADDITION: Along with the arson and terrorism crimes to which each of the three defendants entered pleas of no contest on Monday, the defendants also entered pleas of no contest to hate crime enhancements, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Those enhancements exist under the law to strengthen penalties for crimes. In this case, Jason Kahn, Sara Matheny and William Soto aren't contesting allegations that they acted in concert with each other, and that the property was targeted in part because of the race of the occupant of the adjacent property.
Three of the defendants accused of a hate crime in the burning of a cross in Arroyo Grande last year entered pleas of no contest Monday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
Jason Kahn, Sara Matheny and William Soto each pleaded no contest to some of the allegations they faced in connection with the March 18, 2011, burning of an 11-foot-tall cross in Arroyo Grande.
A black teenage girl witnessed the blaze in the yard outside her bedroom window.
Kahn pleaded no contest to arson and two counts of terrorism and faces 12 years in prison. Matheny and Soto each pleaded no contest to one count of arson and one count of terrorism, and each faces five years in state prison.
Their sentencing is scheduled for May 21 in Judge Jacquelyn Duffy’s court.
Charges of conspiring to commit a crime were dropped against all three as part of the plea deal.
A fourth defendant, Jeremiah Hernandez, has not entered into a plea agreement and his case is continuing separately. He has pleaded not guilty.
Kahn’s conviction on Monday also included a no-contest plea to the unlawful taking of a vehicle in 2010.
Kahn’s attorney, Trace Milan, said that his client had “no idea” that an African-American person lived next door to the property where his father, Rick Kahn, was killed in 1994 after charging at sheriff’s deputies with a hunting knife. Deputies had gone to the residence to question Rick Kahn about his alleged role in the shooting death of a man named Rick Maloney in rural Arroyo Grande.
Milan said that Rick Kahn’s death when Jason Kahn was 19 was “the biggest day” of Jason Kahn’s life.
Milan said every year, his client and his client’s brother would honor their father and that last year it was a “spontaneous” decision to use the cross.
A friend who initially had the cross gave it to Kahn, and the plan was to take it to a rural property on Highway 227 for the “ritual,” Milan said. But the property owner wouldn’t allow it — so the spontaneous decision was made to take it to the site where Rick Kahn died, Milan said.
“He wished he’d known an African-American lived next door, but the fact is that he didn’t,” Milan said. “That would have changed his mind.”
In a preliminary hearing, Deputy District Attorney Dave Pomeroy said Kahn’s two swastika tattoos as well as “white power” body art are signs of his affinity for white supremacy. But Milan has said they show Kahn’s past prison affiliations for a previous conviction and don’t indicate racial hatred.
Pomeroy argued that the suspects committed a hate crime because the burning of a cross near the home of a black person is clearly associated with a racist act, tying its history to a Klu Klux Klan intimidation tactic.
The second count of terrorism Kahn faced involved targeting a person because of race.
Soto and Matheny entered pleas to a different terrorism charge targeting the owner of a private property through reckless disregard of their acts. Race wasn’t included in that charge.
Pomeroy said in court that Kahn had originally faced up to 20 years in prison, Soto faced up to seven years, and Matheny faced up to eight years. The lower penalties were agreed upon as part of the plea deal.