Jeremiah L. Hernandez, a member of a group that burned an 11-foot cross near a mixed-race Arroyo Grande family’s home in 2011, was captured on a gas station video, had ties to people with white supremacist beliefs and was overheard talking about the incident, a prosecutor charged Friday.
An attorney representing Hernandez disagreed, and said his client was not even at the scene, had no white power ties because he is Hispanic and Native American, and that the video is inconclusive.
The two sides squared off Friday during opening statements in the trial of the last member of a group that burned the cross overnight on March 17 last year in a vacant lot on South Elm Street adjacent to a 19-year-old woman’s window.
Hernandez, 32, of San Simeon, has pleaded not guilty to arson, cross burning, terrorism, conspiracy to commit cross burning and related enhancements. Hernandez faces a maximum of 14 years in prison if found guilty of the charges and unrelated pending criminal cases.
The three other defendants in the case have accepted plea-bargain agreements and are scheduled to be sentenced by San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy on May 21.
Jason W. Kahn, 36, of Orcutt, pleaded no contest to arson, cross burning and terrorism-related charges including hate crime enhancements and is expected to receive a 12-year state prison sentence.
William Soto, 20, of Arroyo Grande, and Sara K. Matheny, 24, of San Simeon, also pleaded no-contest to arson and cross burning charges with hate crime enhancements and will most likely receive five-year state prison sentences.
The deals, which also involved unrelated past convictions and present offenses moving through the court system, focused on burning the cross that was stolen from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Arroyo Grande but not the theft of it.
Prosecutor David Pomeroy told the jury, which was selected this week, that Hernandez, also known as Smurf, was at the scene and that there is plenty of evidence to prove it.
Pomeroy said there is a video that was taken at a nearby Chevron gas station at about 11:30 p.m. on March 17 shortly before the cross was burned, that shows Hernandez with the three others in a vehicle with “lumber” on top in Arroyo Grande – most likely the disassembled cross.
He also told jurors that evidence will show Hernandez called himself an “outlaw,” and told a friend in a jail letter to “stick to the script” and “always keep your mouth sealed when law enforcement talks to you.” Pomeroy also said that Hernandez was heard talking about the cross burning by a person who will testify, and a day planner that belongs to Matheny indicates his whereabouts.
The day planner, which contains a cross drawn in pen on St. Patrick’s Day and remarks like we made the “front page,” was taken by authorities who arrested the pair at a hotel on unrelated offenses.
“Jeremiah was there with the three others,” said Pomeroy, adding that the group should have seen the mixed-race woman and her friend watching television within 24 feet of where the cross was burned.
Hernandez’ attorney, Raymond Allen, told the jurors he has many problems with Pomeroy’s evidence.
For starters, he said, the gas station video only shows the top of someone’s head and the officer who identified Hernandez did so after receiving additional information.
“Mr. Henandez was at the Grover Beach Motel where he rented a room with his family,” said Allen, adding they will all testify. “Several people saw him there. The manager also saw him when the cross burning happened. Mr. Hernandez was not involved.”
Allen said Hernandez also has no white power or Nazi tattoos like Kahn does.
One of the first witnesses to testify – who asked that her identity remain anonymous because she fears for her safety – was the former owner of the property where the cross was burned.
Both Pomeroy an Allen asked her if she knew Hernandez or had even seen him before.
“No,” said the woman, adding none of the four had permission to be there.
Throughout the case Kahn’s attorney, Trace Milan, claimed that Kahn and the others did not know the mixed-race family lived in the home and that the cross was burned in an adjacent lot in a celebration of death for Kahn’s father, Ricky Kahn, on the eve of his father’s birthday.
The elder Kahn was killed at the scene by sheriff’s deputies in 1994.