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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Simas Gets Youth Prison Term in Teen's Slaying

August 01, 2000|MATT SURMAN TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge sentenced 24-year-old West Hollywood chef Ryan Simas to up to two years in youth prison Monday for assisting in the murder of Ventura teenager Jesse Strobel, saying the good behavior by Simas since the 1993 assault has been a lie.

After several hours of emotional testimony from Strobel's family and a surprise visit from the young man Simas had blamed for the crime, Juvenile Court Judge Brian Back said Simas was the leader of the group of teenagers who assaulted Strobel--though he was not responsible for his death--and called Simas' behavior since the crime "outrageous."

"For six or seven years, he has betrayed society by living and harboring a lie," Back said. "There is nothing to suggest that he would have stopped short of a wrongful conviction."

Because he was a minor at the time of the crime, Simas, who lives in Los Angeles and is a chef at Spago restaurant, could be released at the discretion of the California Youth Authority in about eight months when he turns 25, or in two years, authorities said.

Simas' trial began seven years after the slaying of Strobel, a popular football player. Strobel, 17, was fatally stabbed in the chest after he was attacked by a carload of teenagers while walking home from his father's pizzeria in the Pierpont section of Ventura.

A 23-year-old Santa Paula gang member, Jose "Pepe" Castillo, later admitted stabbing Strobel and pleaded guilty to murder last summer.

Prosecutors continued to go after Simas, saying he had participated in the fight, drove the getaway car and suggested an innocent man was the culprit, throwing the investigation off track for years.

In a halting statement before his sentencing, Simas continued to deny his involvement in the slaying but apologized to the Strobel family for misleading police.

"My only excuse for my actions was I was 16 and terrified," he said. "If Pepe wasn't there this never would have happened. . . . I wish there was a way to take back the Strobels' pain. If I could go back, I would never let Pepe in the car."

The former chief suspect in the case falsely identified by Simas spoke for the first time in court Monday, saying he harbors no ill will toward Simas or the Strobel family, who for years thought that he was guilty of their son's death.

"I hope [Simas] comes to face what he did that night," said the man, whom prosecutors asked not be identified. "I hope he can grasp the moral values in his life."

The Strobel family met him for the first time Monday, and apologized for their previous belief of his guilt while he was the chief suspect in the crime.

"I have so much admiration [for] him for showing up," said John Strobel, Jesse's grandfather, shortly before the proceedings started.

For more than two hours members of his family described how Jesse Strobel's murder devastated their lives. The crime left a path of emotional wreckage--including depression and anxiety attacks--among those who loved him.

Simas "is a murderer and a thief," said Jackson Strobel, 18, the victim's brother. "He robbed our family of peace of mind. I'm forced to deal with the chilling image of handprints of blood on the door" where Jesse pounded for help, he said.

Throughout the proceeding, Simas, dressed in jail blues, looked straight ahead and avoided eye contact with the victim's relatives.

Several relatives said that had Simas come forward years ago with what he knew about Castillo, he might have saved another life. Castillo has admitted to the June 1998 slaying of Mirna Regollar, 24, at her family's market in Santa Paula after a botched robbery.

"You're a coward. You kept a secret, and you could have come forward," said John Strobel, Jesse's father. He lauded the judge, saying he was right to look past Simas' stable life since the slaying.

"Thank you for seeing through the smoke screen," he said.

Simas' lawyer, Richard Millard, said he would appeal the sentence, and argued the California Youth Authority was not the right place for Simas because he is "drug free, not drug-infested; gang-free, not gang-related; and to put him in that context would be . . . counterproductive."

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