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Carrillo back, refuses to talk about arrest

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo pauses as he hands out awards during la Fiesta de Independencia at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts on Saturday Sept. 15, 2012 in Santa Rosa.

KENT PORTER/Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 10:42 p.m.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, back from a nine-day trip to Russia, returned to the public arena at a pair of local events on Saturday but remained tight-lipped about the street fight that resulted in his arrest in San Diego nearly two weeks ago.

The 31-year-old supervisor shared no new information about the incident and refused to discuss how he is dealing with the ramifications, political and otherwise, that stem from his legal case.

Last week, police downgraded the charges to a pair of misdemeanor allegations: battery causing serious bodily injury and disturbing the peace. The San Diego city attorney now has the case and will determine whether or not to prosecute.

Carrillo, who returned from Russia on Friday, declined Saturday to talk about the case, including who he was with in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego and the events that led to his arrest at 2:10 a.m. on Labor Day outside a popular nightclub.

Beyond echoing a written statement issued by his office Sept. 5 — two days after his arrest and a day before he left for Russia — his only answer was to say that he plans on giving a “full report” about the incident toward the beginning of this week.

“Until that time, I will only say that I've put out a statement and that everything I said in that previous statement is true,” Carrillo said Saturday morning in a telephone call.

Responding to questions about his arrest, he echoed only the information in his first statement: That he was on a personal trip to San Diego and was socializing with a group of friends, including women, who he stepped in to protect when they were harassed by “rowdies.”

“I'll have a more thorough report next week,” he said.

Carrillo's comments came hours before he appeared at a pair of community events Saturday, including a celebration of Mexican Independence Day at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

There, at 3 p.m. in front of a crowd of more than 100 in the East Auditorium, organizer Crystal Rangel introduced Carrillo to applause as “an example to follow for all of our youth.”

Carrillo spoke of his family background — his parents immigrated from Mexico and raised their family in Santa Rosa — and presented several leadership awards to community organizations.

“For me it's an honor to be here celebrating the day of Mexican independence,” he said to the crowd in Spanish.

Support for Carrillo was steadfast among attendees.

The arrest and allegations change nothing, said Salvador Oseguera, 71, of Santa Rosa, who said he voted for Carrillo in June, when he won a second term on the Board of Supervisors.

Carrillo remains the only county elected leader who is Latino, Oseguera said. “We're going to continue to support him. He's the only one we have,” he said.

Later in the day, the county supervisor was among more than 700 people taking part in the annual 4H Foundation of Sonoma County fundraiser, at Richard's Grove and Saralee's Vineyard outside Windsor.

The public appearances were the first for Carrillo — in the United States, at least — since news of his arrest filtered out Sept. 5.

Since then, debate has persisted over how Carrillo and his advisers have handled the aftermath, as well as questions about the future, including the implications for Carrillo's political career — one seen by many to include a future bid for higher office.

On Saturday, Carrillo said that his prepared statement has provided constituents with an adequate account of his actions, for now.

Supporters insist Carrillo's response to his arrest has been reasonable, geared at this point toward protecting his legal defense.

“As Efren can reveal more detail, he will reveal more detail,” said former Sonoma County supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, a close political supporter.

However, one political observer countered that Carrillo's silence outside of his prepared statement has the potential to backfire.

“From the legal perspective, the smartest thing to do is shut up. From a political standpoint, it's bad optics,” said Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan. “Those things in this set of circumstances clash.”

Michael Pancer, Carrillo's San Diego-based attorney, said last week that he had advised the supervisor not to discuss the case publicly until the investigation was complete.

Police wrapped up their inquiry Friday when they turned over the case to the city attorney.

But Pancer, who was named in 2010 by San Diego Metropolitan magazine as one of the region's top 25 lawyers, said that step does not end all inquiry into the case. Carrillo's public statement will come “when I think it won't interfere with the investigation,” he said.

“From my review of every witness statement, Efren acted in an absolutely laudable manner that evening,” he said.

Pancer was unable to say definitively whether it was Carrillo or one of his advisers who contacted him first about the case. He said he does not know how Carrillo was referred to his office.

According to police records, Carrillo gave his statement within three hours of his arrest. Police would not release the statement, which is part of the investigation. They disclosed few other details last week about the fight or Carrillo's alleged role in it.

An Arizona man, 30-year-old Jovan Will, was knocked unconscious in the fight and was briefly hospitalized. He has declined to comment.

Carrillo spent about 10 hours in custody. He was released from jail just before noon Sept. 3 after posting $10,000 bail. Jail officials would not say who posted his bail. He returned to Sonoma County, where he attended the Sebastopol City Council meeting on the night of Sept. 4.

His arrest surfaced on Sept. 5 in a report on KGO radio. Those who worked most closely with him said Carrillo had not spoken with them about the arrest before the news broke. His aide, Susan Upchurch, said she learned of it earlier that morning when questioned by a reporter. Later that day, his fellow supervisors said he had not discussed the incident with them.

The next morning, Carrillo departed for Russia with a group of 23 North Coast residents marking the bicentennial of the founding of the former Russian settlement of Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. Over the next 10 days, Carrillo did not respond to multiple telephone calls, emails and text messages seeking comment about his role in the altercation.

By the time he returned, the criminal case had been downgraded.

The allegations initially included felony battery, but police last week reduced that potential charge for Carrillo to a misdemeanor.

Police would not elaborate on the decision that resulted in the lesser allegations.

Initially, Detective Gary Hassen said the decision was made by a captain, later identified as Capt. Mark Jones. Jones declined to comment last week, referring questions back to Lt. Andra Brown, the department spokeswoman. But Brown could not confirm how the ultimate decision to downgrade the case was made, saying usually such decisions depend on “officers' observations, witness statements and the outcome of the investigation” and are usually made by the detective involved — in this case, Hassen.

“I can't offer anything more to clarify,” Brown said.

Brown said she did not know if anyone interceded in Carrillo's case or exerted political pressure.

“If someone had, I don't know that we would disclose that anyway. It is part of the investigation,” she said.

Another man, Rayan Jastaniyah, 22, of San Diego was arrested on the same allegations as Carrillo. Those charges were narrowed to a misdemeanor disturbing the peace. Attempts to contact the man, who also has been identified by the name Ryan Astiniya Saelmj, have been unsuccessful.

Political observers said the change in Carrillo's case to a misdemeanor — and the possibility it could be dropped altogether — were significant.

“That changes the scenario,” said Mike Reilly, the former supervisor for the 5th District, which takes in part of west Santa Rosa and most of the west county.

“It's an unfortunate situation, and certainly not something that Efren's proud of,” Reilly added, “but I don't think there's going to be any long-term political damage from it.”

Any fallout will likely be minimal in the county, with Carrillo not up for county election until 2016, said a Democratic Party insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation. But the case could hurt him, the source said, if Carrillo runs for higher office and attempts to court voters who don't know him.

It's too early to assess the political fallout, said McCuan, the Sonoma State political scientist.

“The degree to which it affects his future, we don't know yet,” he said.

Carrillo has deflected questions about the San Diego trip, including who he was with and where he was that night, saying repeatedly that it was “personal business.” Most sources shied away from the topic, dismissing it alternately as private business.

People should not be surprised that Carrillo would be out after midnight in a popular entertainment district, several former elected officials said.

“When people elect a single, 31-year-old man, they need to understand there's probably some socializing that goes along with that,” Reilly said. “Folks are willing to take that into account with all of the positives they get out of the deal as well.”

Carrillo's supporters discounted the possibility of any shadow developing over his career.

“I look forward to seeing Efren move forward as a Democrat in politics,” said Marie Gil, a Santa Rosa labor organizer who touted the supervisor's story to several Latino leaders at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte two weeks ago. “Anything the Latino community can do to stand behind him, I would be for.”

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