4 arrested in A.G. cross burning case

Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali, right, announced the arrest of four suspects during a news conference Friday.
Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali, right, announced the arrest of four suspects during a news conference Friday. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Four county residents were charged Friday with conspiring to burn a cross next to the home of a black teenager in Arroyo Grande, an act police allege they carried out in the early morning hours of March 18.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office also filed felony charges against the four suspects for arson, cross burning and terrorism related to the hate crime that shocked the South County community and prompted a large community forum and the formation of a “diversity coalition.”

In a strange twist, the home where the cross was shoved in the ground and set alight in a neighborhood south of East Grand Avenue is the same address where county sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the father of one of the suspects 17 years ago.

Police do not know whether there is a connection between the 1994 shooting of suspect Jason Wayne Kahn’s father, Rick, and the cross burning. However, Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali acknowledged: “There’s a lot of ways to honor a person’s memory. That’s usually not one of them.”

The suspects charged Friday are: Kahn, 36, whose last known address was in Orcutt; William Michael Soto, 20, a transient in Arroyo Grande; Jeremiah Leo Hernandez, 32, a transient in San Simeon who has an alias of “Smurf”; and Sara Kay Matheny, 24, also a transient in San Simeon.

Kahn was also charged Friday with witness intimidation. The charges include hate crime enhancements for the four suspects, which would strengthen their penalties if convicted.

Various law enforcement officials had been keeping the four suspects under surveillance for the past several months, Annibali said. All had been arrested at various points in the past three months on different charges and were already in custody at San Luis Obispo County Jail.

“This has been a day long due in Arroyo Grande,” Annibali said.

Police are still investigating the original theft of the 11-foot wooden cross, which was taken from Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Arroyo Grande.

Annibali said the four suspects are not believed to have been involved in an arson behind the Arroyo Grande Police Department in April.

Annibali wouldn’t comment on whether the suspects have any ties to gangs or hate groups. He said the teenage victim and the suspects did not know each other, but police have reason to believe they knew the teen lived there.

Criminal past

Kahn was the last person police arrested, on July 6, and is being held in County Jail on $150,000 on suspicion of receiving stolen property. His past criminal record includes a conviction for being an accessory to a murder, stemming from the death of Rick Maloney in rural Arroyo Grande in 1994.

Investigators believed Kahn’s father, Rick Kahn, shot Maloney twice in the head. Deputies, who intended to question Rick Kahn, shot and killed him outside his mobile home April 13, 1994, after he charged at them with a hunting knife, according to past Tribune reports.

Jason Kahn and three other men — Scott Cohen, Michael Rhea and Thomas Hunt — were arrested as accessories to the murder.

Jason Kahn served four years and four months in state prison in connection with that crime and a drive-by shooting in Arroyo Grande in the 1990s. He also has a conviction for receiving stolen property in 2004.

Hernandez had convictions for possession of narcotics for sale in 2002, receiving stolen property in 2004 and repeated thefts in 2005. Matheny was convicted in 2009 of two forgery cases. Information on whether Soto had any past convictions was not immediately available.

Thousands of hours

Annibali said he doesn’t expect any further arrests.

He said officials from a dozen law enforcement agencies assisted Arroyo Grande police in the investigation, including the CHP, the Grover Beach police, the county Sheriff’s Department, the county District Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the state Justice Department. Officials estimate they spent 5,000 hours on the case, with Arroyo Grande police dedicating 3,000 of those hours.

In a statement, Mayor Tony Ferrara said: “We hope this outcome will bring a measure of closure to the victim and her family, as well as the community as a whole.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.