Whether four people accused of a cross burning in Arroyo Grande in March knew they were targeting a black teen was at the center of an argument Friday at a preliminary hearing.
Evidence painted a picture of the alleged crime and how some of the defendants may have behaved after the act. It included testimony from police about two defendants discussing the crime, as well as police testimony about a witness who saw four people in a red SUV with wood on the vehicle that may have been assembled into a cross. Evidence also included a seized notebook boasting of the incident and with a drawing of a cross inside.
Swastika tattoos and a racial epithet uttered by a defendant also are at the heart of the case.
Jason Kahn, 37; William Soto, 20; Jeremiah “Smurf” Hernandez, 33; and Sara Matheny, 24, appeared before Judge Jacquelyn Duffy in San Luis Obispo Superior Court for the hearing to decide whether sufficient evidence exists to proceed to trial.
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The four have pleaded not guilty to charges of arson, terrorism and conspiracy, with hate crime enhancements.
Kahn also has pleaded not guilty to threatening to harm a witness if she testified.
Duffy delayed her decision after the daylong hearing and is expected to make a ruling Monday.
The incident took place March 18 on a property adjacent to a young black woman’s home. The teen was watching television when she noticed a glowing light outside her window and saw a burning cross in the neighbor’s yard.
The cross burning occurred the day before the birthday anniversary of Jason Kahn’s father, Rick Kahn, who had died at the same place about 17 years earlier when he was shot by police attempting to question him about a murder.
Deputy District Attorney Dave 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 Ku Klux Klan intimidation tactic.
Pomeroy said Kahn’s two swastika tattoos as well as “white power” body art are signs of his affinity for white supremacy.
The arrests came in part from confidential informants as well as written notes in a calendar planner.
The suspects fled from the scene of the burning cross, Pomeroy said, implying they didn’t want to be seen committing the burning.
“A burned cross outside the window of a black person is a hate crime,” Pomeroy said.
Defense attorneys representing each suspect sought to show that no evidence was presented that indicated the four people knew a black person lived there.
But the alleged victim told police she had some knowledge of two defendants.
Arroyo Grande police Detective Beau Pryor testified that the alleged victim told police she had seen Kahn at the beach and remembered some of his tattoos — which include a cross on the back of his head.
She’d met Soto at a McDonald’s through friends a couple of years prior, she told police.
Despite the testimony, defense attorneys emphasized that no evidence was presented to show the four people had knowledge of the girl’s residence. Kahn told one police informant that “I had no idea a n----- lived there,” according to Friday’s testimony.
“There is no evidence they knew she was there or they went there with the intention to commit a hate crime,” said Trace Milan, Kahn’s attorney.
While Milan admitted his client used an “ugly” term to describe the young woman, that does not prove he committed a hate crime. Instead, Milan said, his client was at the scene of the incident “because of his pop.”
Another informant said he overheard Soto and Hernandez talking about committing a cross burning days after and reported it to police.
Hernandez’s attorney, Raymond Allen, said Soto talked about the incident, and that evidence his client was involved is absent.
Matheny, who is Hernandez’s girlfriend, police said, was implicated through notes in her planner showing a drawing of a cross and the written note “became an outlaw” on the date of the incident. Another note — documenting media attention of the incident — said “front page” next to a cross.
However, Matheny’s attorney, Trevor Creel, said none of the police informants connected her to the incident.
Additional police testimony described three men and a woman assembling a cross near the incident.
Police claimed to identify three of the defendants — Soto, Matheny and Hernandez — in surveillance video at a Chevron gas station that day in which they emerged from a red SUV.
But lawyers representing Hernandez and Matheny questioned the accuracy of the identifications based on the video.
The hearing is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. Monday in Duffy’s court.