Jul 22, 2011 9:10 PM by Danielle Lerner

Police Chief says suspects wanted to "terrorize" cross burning victim

Nearly four months after a cross burning outraged a local community, four people are behind bars, accused of the crime.

The Arroyo Grande Police Chief says it took several agencies and more than 5,000 hours of investigation to link the four suspects to the crime.

On March 18 someone burned a cross next to a black woman's home in the 100 block of South Elm Street. Police have been investigating the incident as a hate crime. Officers say the cross was stolen from Saint John's Lutheran Church.

The suspects were arrested on unrelated charges and booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail before Friday's charges were filed. Officers and city leaders are hoping the arrests can bring some closure to the victim, her family and the community.

"My understanding at this point is that the motive in this case was simply to terrorize the victim," said Arroyo Grande Police Chief Steve Annibali.

The suspects include 20-year-old transient William Soto, 36-year-old Jason Kahn of Orcutt, 32-year-old Jeremiah Hernandez and 24-year-old Sara Matheny, both transients from San Simeon.

All four face felony charges of arson, cross burning, terrorism and conspiracy, all with hate crime enhancements. Kahn also faces a charge of witness intimidation.

"As far as an organized gang or hate group, there is some evidence of concern that we have regarding that," Annibali said.

Officers worked closely with several agencies, including the Sheriff's Department, FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the local chapter of the NAACP.

"I thank the City Council and everyone for embracing us and being open to what we had to say," said Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, president of the Santa Maria and Lompoc NAACP.

So as the district attorney works to build its case against the four suspects, city leaders are focusing on the future.

Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara issued a statement saying, "Despite the fact that our city was shaken by this crime, it did provide an opportunity for us to become better educated on matters relating to diversity."

Officers say the suspects had seen the victim before but they did not have a relationship with her. Meantime investigators are still looking into the theft of that cross from Saint John's Church. At this time officers do not believe these suspects were involved in the arson behind the Arroyo Grande Police Department back in April.


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