Suspects in Arroyo Grande cross burning will be tried on arson, hate crime charges

Four people accused of a hate crime will face trial in the March burning of a cross near the Arroyo Grande home of a black teen.

Judge Jacquelyn Duffy issued her ruling Monday morning in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in the case against Jason Kahn, Sara Matheny, Jeremiah “Smurf” Hernandez, and William

Soto after a daylong preliminary hearing Friday.

Each has pleaded not guilty to arson, hate crime allegations and conspiracy to commit a crime.

These hearings are to determine whether there is enough evidence to merit continuing a case toward trial.

Duffy cited testimony that included the size of the wooden cross burned (11 feet tall and 6 to 7 feet wide) and how close it was to the teen’s window (about 25 feet).

The judge also cited Kahn’s two swastika tattoos, the teen’s statements that she thought she’d previously seen Kahn at the beach and had met Soto once before through friends, and the connection that cross burnings have with racist intimidation.

The defendants are scheduled to return to Duffy’s courtroom Sept. 28 for an arraignment.

The incident took place March 18 on a property adjacent to the young black woman’s home. The teen was watching television with a friend when she noticed a glowing light outside her window and saw a burning cross in the neighbor’s yard, she told police.

Defense attorneys argued Friday that no evidence was presented to show that the four defendants knew that a black person lived where Kahn’s father, Rick Kahn, was shot and killed in a dispute with police 17 years ago.

Police went to the home April 13, 1994, to question Rick Kahn about a murder, and he charged at them with a hunting knife before he was shot.

Jason Kahn’s attorney, Trace Milan, has told The Tribune that his client previously memorialized his father at the same residence, and the cross-burning incident came a day before what would have been his father’s birthday.

Gael Mueller, the attorney representing Soto, said outside court that she’ll consider moving to dismiss the case.

Mueller argued at Friday’s hearing that confidential informants who helped police gather evidence had a motive to lie because they were in custody and could have thought their sentences would be reduced or dismissed if they helped police.

But in her ruling, Duffy cited some of the evidence that came from an informant, including an assertion by a woman that Kahn made his Aryan brotherhood allegiances clear to those he associated with and intimated her by threatening harm if she testified.