Last year's protests resulted in dozens of criminal cases

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Stacey Shepard, The Bakersfield Californian
·5 min read
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Feb. 23—Nearly three dozen criminal prosecutions have resulted from street protests last year in Bakersfield over racial injustice and later from clashes between Black Lives Matter activists and Trump supporters leading up to the presidential election.

While about 50 cases were referred by law enforcement to the Kern County District Attorney's Office from those events, a total of 20 felony cases and 13 misdemeanor cases have been filed, according to a list provided to The Californian by District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer.

Zimmer said civil unrest in Kern was not as bad as elsewhere in the state or nation but that it still came at a cost.

"It is expensive and a burden for law enforcement," Zimmer said. "How many (police officers) did you have out there on all these nights? How much overtime did the taxpayers pay? How much did that cost?"

However, local criminal defense attorney David Torres said the DA's office is in some cases creating additional taxpayer expense by prosecuting protesters "to the hilt."

Torres pointed to one of his clients as an example. He is defending Avion Hunter, who was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer for allegedly throwing rocks at police officers during a protest in early June. Hunter, who was 24 at the time, has no prior criminal history, Torres said, but the DA's office so far is unwilling to consider a plea deal for a charge that could result in a prison sentence.

"They don't want to negotiate. They want to make an example out of these folks and take them to trial," Torres said, noting that jury trials cost taxpayers thousands of dollars a day.

Torres said protesters don't have a right to injure people but that aggressive and expensive prosecutions aren't necessarily the answer either.

"It was a time in our country and in our community where people wanted to speak. Some behavior might be deemed criminal but we should think about why," Torres said. "The healing doesn't begin by trying to prosecute everybody to the hilt. The healing begins when we sit down and ask why."

Beginning in late May, daily protests started in Bakersfield against police misconduct following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. Protests flared again in September in response to the Breonna Taylor case. Both times they were concentrated primarily in and around downtown but later extended to other parts of the city when counter-protesters began to clash with Black Lives Matter activists during election season.

The protests were relatively peaceful but punctuated by several intense moments. Some demonstrations became hostile between protesters and counter-protesters and at times physical altercations ensued.

On June 3, 56-year-old Robert Forbes was struck by a vehicle while he demonstrated with a group of protesters on California Avenue and died days later at Kern Medical. The man who hit him, Timothy Keith Moore, was never charged in Forbes' death but later died in Baja, Mexico on Sept. 5.

Among the most serious prosecutions from last year's protests were incidents in which protesters were actually the victims, according to a review of the cases being prosecuted.

Ten felonies were filed against Michael Tran, a Bakersfield man in his early 30s who police say drove through a crowd of protesters in downtown Bakersfield on May 29. Tran drove through a crowd of demonstrators on Truxtun Avenue, then turned his vehicle around and drove back through the crowd again, hitting a 15-year-old girl who suffered minor injuries, according to police reports filed in Kern County Superior Court.

Tran's case has been suspended while he goes through a mental health program.

Another high-profile case involves what police described as four Trump supporters facing multiple felonies each, including for hate crimes, for allegedly harassing a Black woman who was a Black Lives Matter supporter in a parking lot on Nov. 1. During the incident, the Trump supporters sprayed bear mace at the woman, called her a racial slur and physically assaulted her, according to a police report filed in Kern County Superior Court.

Those charged in the case are Kevin Ryan Connell, 28, Timothy Ray Stevens, 30, Kristi Lyn Stewart, 42, and Dustin Francis Marion, 34. They have pleaded not guilty.

A preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial is scheduled for March 22.

Of the cases where protesters are charged, the most serious involve those who are accused of trying to harm police.

Torres' client has a co-defendent, Andres Garcia, who is also charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer for allegedly throwing rocks at police officers. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Xandria Anjanette Beltran Gomez, a woman in her late 20s, faces four felonies including assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer during a September protest related to nationwide outrage over the case of Taylor, a Kentucky woman shot and killed by police inside her home. Beltran Gomez also faces felony charges of possessing brass knuckles, resisting an executive officer's order and vandalism.

According to KGET-17, police said in court documents Beltran Gomez spray painted on police barriers and when officers approached her, she ran away and then stopped, turned toward officers and raised an aluminum bat she was carrying. No police officers were hurt, KGET-17 reported.

Beltran Gomez has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for a court hearing on March 10.

Of the other prosecutions, about 10 of the misdemeanor cases were for unlawful assembly and 10 felony cases were for burglary charges. There were also prosecutions for reckless driving, vandalism and DUI.