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Ventura County

Lawyer Tells of Murder Suspect's Nazi Beliefs

Courts: Opening statements are presented in the fatal beating of a homeless man.

September 27, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Motivated by white supremacist beliefs, a Ventura skinhead beat a homeless man to death at the Ventura River then joined his friends for a night of partying on the beach, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Robert Coffman, 19, helped kill James Richard Clark, 58, as Clark lay in his sleeping bag in the brush-covered river bottom, Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Ratner told the Ventura County jury in opening statements in the murder trial.

Coffman and three friends were driven to kill Clark the night of June 29, 2001, because of a belief held by white supremacists that homeless people are a disgrace to society and that their status "is the lowest it can be," Ratner said. Coffman is also accused of stabbing another man, Daniel McGrath, the following night at the city's seaside promenade.

The four teenagers lived a lifestyle marked by drinking and pot-smoking, the prosecutor said. During a search of Coffman's residence, Ratner said, detectives discovered Nazi paraphernalia, including a picture Coffman drew depicting swastikas and the number 88, skinhead lingo for "Heil Hitler."

The prosecutor said the drawing included a statement espoused by the racist group the Order: "We must secure the existence of our people and the future for white children."

Defense lawyer Kay Duffy agreed that Coffman and his friends smoked pot, drank excessively and engaged in criminal activity. But she said Coffman was not the instigator in the crimes he is charged with.

"The evidence will show that they were stupid kids ... stupid kids," Duffy said. "And the evidence will show that Robert Coffman was criminally involved, but to what degree is for you to decide once you have heard the evidence."

The four teenagers stumbled upon Clark that Friday night as they were cruising around the riverbed on their bicycles looking for a keg party, Ratner told the jury.

Clark, who often slept in an area near the river mouth called Hobo Jungle, was lying in his bag surrounded by his possessions, including a backpack, a portable radio and a coffee can holdings some pennies, Ratner said.

The young men pelted Clark with the pennies "just for the sheer entertainment of harassing an old man" and took off with his belongings to a graffiti-marked tree nearby. One of the teens, John Becker, realized he had left behind his bong, a pipe-like device for smoking marijuana.

The young men went back to Clark to get the bong and inexplicably began to attack him, Ratner said in her presentation.

"They kicked him over and over again in the head, the arm and the back and hit him on the head twice with the bong," Ratner told the jury. "He hit him so hard, the bong broke."

She showed the jury a photograph of the broken bong and a rock at the site spattered with blood from a shoe. She said the scene was indicative of a "boot party," an act of violence by white supremacists who kick and stomp a victim in the head.

Clark, who weighed 123 pounds, most likely died about an hour later, Ratner said. "He never got out of his sleeping bag," she said. Detectives found an empty wallet and some McDonald's vouchers in his pocket.

After the beating, the young men left to go look for a party, she said. They joined some people at the beach and started smoking and drinking, Ratner said.

The teens spent the next day hanging out with some teenage girls at a nearby apartment complex and "got ready for another day of partying," the prosecutor said.

That night, they headed to the beach again to find another party and hooked up with a known skinhead named Kenny Valentine, Ratner said. At the seaside promenade, they ran into Daniel McGrath, an acquaintance, who was sitting on a bench with his girlfriend.

Valentine was upset with McGrath for supposedly making a previous reference about Valentine's grandmother, Ratner said. Valentine, who was drunk and "out of control," began screaming at McGrath and hit him once with an open hand. Valentine hit him again and created "the beginning of a blood trail," Ratner said.

"The only one armed was Mr. Coffman," she said. "He had a knife in his pocket."

Coffman, who has a swastika tattooed on his arm, pulled the knife on McGrath, jumped on his back and stabbed him five times, Ratner said. Coffman denied any involvement in both incidents but changed his story later and said he had been at the scenes of each incident and had stabbed McGrath.

"Both men suffered the wrath and violence that Mr. Coffman was able to push upon them--and only one of them survived," she said.

Coffman is the second suspect to be tried in Clark's death. Rocky Mattley, 15, was convicted of second-degree murder earlier this year and was committed to the California Youth Authority. Testimony in the Coffman trial will begin Monday.

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