Top 10 Stories of 2011: No. 2 — County shocked by cross burning in Arroyo Grande

Editor’s note: This is No. 2 of The Tribune’s Top 10 stories of 2011 as selected by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day we will count down to the top story of the year.

The crime shocked Arroyo Grande residents, prompted a community forum and spurred the formation of a countywide coalition that is currently working on ways to celebrate diversity.

Just after midnight in mid-March, a 19-year-old black woman noticed a glowing light outside her window and saw a large, white cross burning in the neighbor’s yard.

Four months after the flames were extinguished, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office filed felony charges against four county residents: Jason Kahn, Sarah Matheny, William Soto and Jeremiah “Smurf” Hernandez.

They later pleaded not guilty to charges of arson, terrorism and conspiracy, with hate crime enhancements.

As defense lawyers gear up for trial, scheduled to start Feb. 6, the South County community is still taking steps toward healing from its first suspected hate crime since 2002, according to FBI data.

In the days and months that followed the cross burning, many residents expressed outrage and questioned how such an incident could happen here. About 150 people gathered for a community forum to speak out against hate and bias.

Soon after, the Five Cities Diversity Coalition was created to prevent and respond to hate crimes and acts of hate, and to provide the opportunity to address human relations issues in a much more positive and proactive way, Arroyo Grande City Manager Steve Adams said.

A group of about 30 people from government, business and faith-based organizations, plus two Arroyo Grande High School students, the Latino Outreach Council and the NAACP, have developed a mission statement and formed groups to work on goals including fundraising, membership, public relations, outreach and other efforts.

The final “start-up plan” should be available to the public in February, Adams said. The group hopes to have a website, gain more members, possibly interact with schools and host events for the community with featured speakers, said coalition chair and county Supervisor Adam Hill.

“I think there’s a general consensus that we want to make everybody feel that they’re just as important to the community as anyone else,” Hill said. “Even though we live in an extremely diverse state, some people forget the value of diversity and the importance of it to a community.”

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

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.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy ruled in September that sufficient evidence existed to proceed to trial, citing 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 racial intimidation.

The lawyers are awaiting a decision on an appeal that could reduce charges against the four facing trial.

They have joined in an appeal that argues that, under the statute alleged, a hate crime relating to the alleged victim must take place on the property of the person targeted.

In the Arroyo Grande case, the cross burning took place next door, though prosecutor Dave Pomeroy has argued the burning took place in clear view of the young black woman’s bedroom window.

The series previously

No. 3 — Budget cuts hit state, county hard.

No. 4 — Separate scandals lead to resignations of Cal Poly coaches.

No. 5 — County, Diablo Canyon react to Japanese disaster.

No. 6 — Rape allegations spur discussions at Cal Poly.

No. 7 — Companies break ground on two solar farms in the county.

No. 8 — Attacks on Atascadero State Hospital staff lead state toward reforms.

No. 9 — Two men are accused of kidnapping and torturing another man in a California Valley trailer.

No. 10 — Ian Parkinson becomes sheriff of San Luis Obispo County.

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