Activist street vendor trial to proceed in San Bernardino County

Nathan Solis

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In early September, Edin Enamorado took to social media to ask his hundreds of thousands of followers to help find a security guard who had attacked a group of street vendors in Pomona.

“We’ll be holding him accountable,” Enamorado said in his livestream video from outside the Pomona police station, where he chastised police for not investigating the attack.

Several hours later, the security guard was lying on the floor of an El Super Market, battered and blasted with pepper spray by a group of activists allegedly led by Enamorado, according to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.

Now Enamorado, who has portrayed himself on social media as the voice of underserved communities and the loudest critic among an army of activists who have publicly shamed law enforcement officials and racists, is behind bars, accused of committing a pattern of “ritualized harassment to gain notoriety,” according to prosecutors.

Enamorado, whose online video posts have been seen by millions of viewers, led a rally that blocked a police station and then heavily edited a video of an incident that followed to remove scenes that incriminated some of his fellow protesters, according to prosecutors.

During a five-day preliminary hearing that ended Wednesday, videos of the various incidents were played, but law enforcement investigators were often unable to identify any named defendants as appearing in them.

After the arguments were made, Judge Zahara Arredondo ruled that charges over vandalism and using tear gas would be dropped against seven of the defendants, but that the criminal case could proceed on 15 remaining charges.

In her ruling that the trial could proceed, Arredondo said that a preliminary hearing is meant to show whether “a reasonable person could harbor a strong suspicion” of a defendant’s guilt, and that she had found there was evidence that the defendants had carried out a conspiracy to commit violence.

“I hold every person accountable,” the judge said in reference to the conspiracy charge and the exclusion of one of the defendants.

She also called a video of an alleged victim giving a forced apology to Enamorado while on their knees “humiliating” and “one of the most offensive things possible that could be done to a person.”

Still, Arredondo dropped all but one charge against Gullit Acevedo, 30. He still faces a charge of assault, but it has been dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The group led by Enamorado, referred to as “the Justice 8” by their supporters, are vocal critics of law enforcement; their lawyers have argued that they were exercising their 1st Amendment rights when the incidents occurred.

“The fact that some people might not like their message does not make them criminals,” defense attorney Dan Chambers said. He added that the prosecution wants to frame the protesters as a “roving mob.”

San Bernardino County Deputy District Atty. Jason Wilkerson said that the alleged conspiracy involved more than one incident and that the defendants could be guilty of conspiracy even if they were not present when all of the alleged crimes took place.

“The actions of these groups, despite their message, tears the fabric of society,” Wilkerson said, adding that they had conspired to take part in “preconceived vigilantism.”

The named defendants include Enamorado, Acevedo, Wendy Lujan, 40; David Chavez, 28; Stephanie Amesquita, 33; Edwin Peña, 26; Fernando Lopez, 44; and Vanessa Carrasco, 40. Only Acevedo has been released on bail. The others remain in police custody nearly a month after their arrests.

The case remains under investigation and more people could be charged, according to the prosecution.

The group’s alleged tactics — surrounding vehicles during protests and using pepper spray in an offensive manner — were meant to intimidate people, prosecutors say.

Enamorado’s attorney, Nicholas Rosenberg, accused the security guard, referred to in court documents as John Doe #1, of being a liar and the aggressor, saying the guard had attacked the street vendors. Rosenberg said that all of the alleged victims in the case “did not have clean hands” and had actively provoked the named defendants.

Just before members reportedly chased the security guard into the El Super market, the group had protested outside the home of a man who threw a bottle filled with an unknown liquid at protesters outside the Pomona police station. Witnesses said the bottle was filled with urine, according to defense attorneys. It was reportedly unclear who was the aggressor in the incident, and the man left the scene.

During one of Enamorado’s livestream videos outside the police station, someone can be heard saying they‘ll go to the bottle thrower’s home. Prosecutors say this moment was an example of the alleged conspiracy.

Later, about 10 to 20 people found the man sitting in his car outside his home, about a mile from the police station. The man, referred to in court documents as John Doe #2, pleaded with the crowd to not beat him up, according to prosecutors, and groveled while on his knees.

The threat of violence from Enamorado and others in the group was clear, prosecutors said.

Another example of conspiracy, according to prosecutors, was when Enamorado received an Instagram message about the Pomona security guard’s location, which prosecutors said led to violence and showed a pattern with other incidents.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys disagree on whether San Bernardino County should have jurisdiction over the incidents in Pomona, which is in Los Angeles County.

Prosecutors accuse the defendants of deploying similar tactics on Sept. 24 in Victorville, in San Bernardino County.

The group organized a rally outside the Victorville sheriff’s station to protest a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy who a day earlier had body-slammed a 16-year-old girl during a fight at a high school football game. The incident was caught on video and shared on social media by Enamorado.

Protesters blocked the entrance to the sheriff’s station and surrounded a civilian vehicle driven by a deputy reporting for work. Law enforcement officials say they had to use the back entrance during the protest.

While the protesters were leaving the station and crossing in front of a car wash, a driver tried to pass through the crowd, according to video played in court.

Several protesters are seen standing in front of the vehicle, blocking it and inciting a confrontation with a male passenger in the car, according to prosecutors, who narrated the video and identified three of them as Amesquita, Lujan and Carrasco.

The passenger jumps out of the car, hitting a protester with one of its doors; defense attorneys have said he appears aggressive. A man prosecutors identified as Enamordo pushes the man, referred to in court documents as John Doe #3. A protester identified as Peña punches him, while another, reportedly Chavez, pepper-sprays him. Another, identified as Acevedo, throws multiple punches at John Doe #3, but none of them land.

The brawl ends when a passing San Bernardino County Sheriff’s cruiser flashes its lights and sounds its siren. As the protesters walk away from John Doe #3, a voice prosecutors identified as Enamorado’s is heard saying, “That’s what he gets.”

Enamorado later released an edited version of the video and claimed that the man had sexually assaulted Lujan during the melee.

Prosecutors accuse Enamorado of editing the video multiple times to support his side of the story and to sensationalize the incidents. Days after the protest, Chavez told Enamorado he was concerned about what the video showed, according to subpoenaed text messages.

“Hey bro, could you take down the video. It’s incriminating me,” Chavez wrote in a text message that was presented to the court through a subpoena warrant. Enamorado wrote back that Acevedo had also asked for the video to be taken down.

Prosecutors and investigators say each separate act, including showing up at the home of the group’s intended target and allegedly threatening violence, are indications of conspiracy.

Defense attorney Damon Alimouri disagrees.

“A crowd does not imply conspiracy,” Alimouri said, noting that there are eight individuals facing varying charges.

“If it’s illegal to protest, then they are guilty of conspiracy,” he said.

Some of the defendants did not dispute that they were involved in fights during the protests. Enamorado was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. He acknowledged that he had posted a video on Instagram on Nov. 17 of himself firing a gun at a shooting range.

He has also conceded that he was involved in a fistfight with the security guard in Pomona.

Outside the courtroom, supporters gathered to offer their support to Enamorado and the others charged.

Antelope Valley resident Kris Serrano, 38, who attended the hearing in support of the activists, said it seemed that law enforcement officials were painting Enamorado as a monster.

“There’s a lot of vulnerable people who don’t get the opportunities that others do,” Serrano said. “[People] are out there assaulting vendors, harassing them, taking away their money and the food that lets them help family. What are you supposed to do?”

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Nathan Solis www.latimes.com

SOURCE
2024-01-11 07:10:13 , News from California, the nation and world – Los Angeles Times

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