San Simeon man found guilty of burning cross at black teen's home

Jeremiah L. Hernandez
Jeremiah L. Hernandez

The last of four people accused of burning a tall cross outside a black teen’s window in Arroyo Grande last year was found guilty on all charges by a jury Monday.

Jeremiah Leo “Smurf” Hernandez, 33, was found guilty in San Luis Obispo Superior Court of arson, terrorism in the form a cross burning, terrorism in the form of arson targeting a person’s race, and conspiracy to commit a crime. The jury also found him guilty of the enhanced penalty of committing hate crimes.

Hernandez faces up to 14 years in state prison if he’s handed down the maximum possible sentence by Judge Jacquelyn Duffy. The sentencing is scheduled for June 27.

Jurors said they found credible several pieces of evidence argued by Deputy District Attorney Dave Pomeroy to prove the case against Hernandez.

Those included testimony from a police informant who said Hernandez and other suspects in the crime talked privately about carrying out the cross burning, video from a gas station that showed Hernandez together with two of the other suspects on the day of the incident, and a calendar journal entry written by Hernandez’s girlfriend that implicated him.

“It was pretty clear cut that he was involved,” one juror said after the verdict was read. “I think if you put it all together, there was no other way to see it.”

But Raymond Allen, Hernandez’s attorney, said he was disappointed in the verdict — saying the video showed no clear evidence his client was the same man in the footage, calling it “a black dot” of someone’s head.

Allen also tried to poke holes in the credibility of a witness who said that his client verbally acknowledged the crime after it took place, saying that his story changed over time. His client denied any participation in the event.

“Nobody said that they actually saw Jeremiah Hernandez do what he was accused of doing,” Allen said.

Three others charged with the same crime — Jason Kahn, Sara Matheny and William Soto — pleaded no contest to the charges and were sentenced to state prison in May.

Kahn was sentenced to a term of 12 years, and Soto and Matheny each were sentenced to five-year terms.

At the same property where the cross was burned in 2011, Kahn’s 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 near Arroyo Grande.

Outside court Monday, jurors said they felt as if the group went to honor the death of Kahn’s father as well as to intimidate the black teen, who was watching television when she saw a large burning cross outside her bedroom window just after midnight March 18, 2011.

“It seemed like they did this to honor his dad by doing something that would have made him proud,” one juror said.

Another said the hate crime element of the incident was like “the icing on the cake” for them because they memorialized Rick Kahn and intimidated the girl at the same time.

None of the jurors wanted to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the case.

Pomeroy said he’d never seen a cross-burning case in his long career as a local prosecutor, though other hate crimes have occurred in San Luis Obispo County.