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Sonoma teen faces hate crime charge in beating

Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.

A Sonoma Valley teen faces charges of robbery, assault, gang involvement and commission of a hate crime following his arrest in connection with what witnesses describe as a curse-laced attack on a young gay man in an El Verano schoolyard 10 days ago.

Sheriff's officials said the 17-year-old suspect, whose name was not released because he is a minor, was found in possession of the victim's stolen cellphone.

He is being held at juvenile hall without bail.

A conviction on the hate-crime charge would vindicate the impassioned insistence of the attack's primary victim, an 18-year-old high-school senior, and his mother that what happened the night of March 29 was a far more serious and troubling crime than was initially represented by deputies.

Kristin Land went to the Sonoma City Council three days after the attack to complain that deputies characterized it as a gang-related fight despite her son's declarations that it was hate crime, as evidenced by the slurs the attackers flung as they beat him and stole his wallet and cellphone.

Bret Sackett, the Sonoma County Sheriff's lieutenant who serves as chief of the Sonoma Police Department, said Monday an investigation by detectives has shown that the victim's homosexuality "might very well" have been a factor in the attack.

Sackett said that in interviews with detectives, a witness and two of the friends whom the victim had gone to El Verano School to meet late the night of March 29 reinforced the perception that the assault and robbery by about seven suspected gang members "may have been motivated by his sexual orientation."

Sackett said the investigation also has revealed new details on what happened at El Verano School prior to the attack.

His summary: Friends of the primary victim went ahead of him to the schoolyard to drink and to smoke marijuana, and they came upon several suspected gang members. A few members of the two groups knew each other, Sackett said, and they drank and smoked together.

When the young gay man arrived to join his friends, the suspected gang members jumped him. Sackett said detectives confirmed through interviews that the suspects called him "sexually derogatory terms" before and while beating him.

When at least two of his friends came to his defense, Sackett said, the suspects struck them and took their wallets and cellphones, too.

Sackett said that initially the victims provided little information on their attackers, but subsequent interviews by detectives provided better details about possible suspects.

The 17-year-old arrested Friday night was booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, participation in a criminal street gang and violation of the hate-crime statute.

Kristin Land said that with the other assailants still at large, her family remains fearful. "We're happy they made an arrest," she added.

"I feel like we did the right thing by coming forward."

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