An East San Diego man is being held in connection with three attacks in Hillcrest last December that culminated in the killing of a high school student and galvanized gays and others in the community in a continuing vigil against hate crimes.
San Diego police Thursday booked Eddie Barton, 25, on suspicion of murder and attempted murder in the Dec. 13 fatal stabbing of 17-year-old John Robert Wear and the beating of one of Wear's two companions.
Barton was already in custody at the County Jail downtown after police arrested him Tuesday at his home in the 800 block of Carlsbad Street. He was arraigned Wednesday on two charges of battery for attacks that preceded the assault on Wear, homicide Lt. John Welter said.
All the attacks occurred within a few blocks of each other. Between 10:30 and 11 p.m. Dec. 13, a man walking in the 1700 block of University Avenue was punched in the face by at least one of two attackers. A few minutes later, another man walking in the 1000 block of University Avenue had his nose broken in an attack.
Ten minutes later, Wear, of Del Cerro, and two teen-age companions were attacked in the 1000 block of Essex Street as they walked from their car to Soho, a popular coffeehouse a block away on University Avenue.
"In all three attacks," Welter said, "witnesses stated that the suspects were yelling epithets of homosexual nature at the victims."
Witnesses also gave similar descriptions of two assailants involved in the attacks, saying they sported short-cropped hair, combat boots and flannel shirts.
Welter said police are hoping to identify the second suspect believed to have participated with Barton in the attacks.
Wear, a senior at Twain Junior-Senior High School, who was not gay, was stabbed in the chest and died a day later in Mercy Hospital after receiving 250 units of blood in an attempt to save his life. One of his two companions, Bryan Baird, then 18 and a senior at Patrick Henry High School, was cut in the face. The name of the third youth, who was not seriously hurt, was not released.
Gay and lesbian community leaders expressed cautious relief Thursday at the news of Barton's arrest.
Anthony V. Zampella, publisher of Bravo!, a magazine geared to gays, urged the district attorney's office to seek enhanced penalties against Barton under the state's hate crimes law.
"It was definitely a hate crime," Zampella said. "Until people are prosecuted for these types of crimes, there isn't going to be an automatic deterrent."
Steve Casey, a district attorney's spokesman, said that, if a hate crimes enhancement is sought, it will be attached to the battery charges. The enhancement cannot be applied to murder charges, Casey said.
Wear's death sparked an outcry from gay and lesbian groups and others in the Hillcrest community against a series of 30 attacks, mostly along University Avenue, that began last July. After Wear died, hundreds of people turned out for a candlelight march and an angry meeting with police.
Police responded by appointing a task force to investigate the crimes and more officers to patrol the area's streets.
In one of the first efforts of its kind, organized by City Councilman John Hartley, police worked with residents to form a citizens patrol whose volunteer members began driving Hillcrest's streets, watching for suspicious activity.
Although the task force was disbanded in February, with officers shifted to other duties in the city, the Citizens Patrol has remained. Through the efforts of gay groups and community newspapers, the patrol's membership has risen to more than 100, with about 50 members regularly participating in patrols, said Wendy Sue, a member of the patrol's steering committee.
Two-citizen teams armed with a cellular telephone now regularly drive the streets, reporting suspected crimes to police. The result, both police and community leaders say, has been a noticeable decrease in violent street crimes and a cautious feeling that Hillcrest is safer.
"In all honesty, the typical thing like that starts off strong with a lot of community support, and then people lose interest," said police Sgt. Dennis Love, who oversees patrols in the area. "This, on the other hand, has started out strong and kept going.
"You've got some really involved people there who are interested in making their community a better place to be."
Love said police have been so impressed by the Citizens Patrol that it is being used as a model for other communities concerned with fighting crime.
With the support of Wear's parents, the Lesbian and Gay Men's Community Center created the John Wear Memorial Award to honor people who perform outstanding service in the fight against hate crimes. Two weeks ago, the center presented the award to Hartley and the Citizens Patrol.