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The following article was posted on December 13th, 2012, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 20 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 20

More to the story?

Questions linger in a downtown SLO attempted murder case

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

A felony case playing out in San Luis Obispo Superior Court could hinge on whether a jury believes a man feared for his life when he came to the aid of another man being beaten by a group of reportedly intoxicated males.


POTENTIAL MURDERER OR GOOD SAMARITAN?
Vallejo resident Austin Sarna, 22, faces attempted murder charges for stabbing an intoxicated man after coming to the defense of a beating victim in downtown San Luis Obispo.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SINA HARRIS

Austin Sarna, 22, originally of Vallejo, has not yet entered a plea to two felony charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly stabbing Atascadero residents Trevor Tice and Zachary Lerno, both 27.

But one unusual thing about this case is that the chain of events isn’t in question. Nearly every witness has since corroborated events to investigators, according to court documents.

Around midnight on Jan. 20, an unidentified man was driving his car north on Broad Street. As he turned right on Monterey, one of a group of up to seven “college-aged males” walking along the road kicked his car. Understandably, the driver pulled over, got out, and confronted the group.

According to statements made to police, at least two people in the group began assaulting the driver, who was clearly losing the fight; after he allegedly tried to get back into his vehicle and drive off, he again became engaged in a fight with the group.

Sarna, nearby with his dog at Mission Plaza, reported witnessing the fracas and, approaching the group, told them to leave the driver alone. Because he was outnumbered and scared, he would later say, he pulled out a 7-inch knife he carried in his bag and held it out toward the group as he repeated for them to leave.

According to witness statements, two guys in the group—one later identified as Tice—got around the blade and wrestled Sarna to the ground. According to an investigator’s report, Tice pinned Sarna down with his knees atop Sarna’s chest—what an investigator later identified as consistent with a mixed-martial arts “full-mount”—while he and at least one other person punched and kicked Sarna in the head and face.

“Since I already had the knife in my hand that I used to scare them off … I started defending myself with it,” Sarna later told investigators.

During the struggle, Sarna made eight “superficial” wounds in Tice’s back, and one laceration to his left bicep, severing an artery, which required surgery. Lerno sustained a minor cut to his head, which didn’t require medical attention.

Following the altercation, Lerno and others in the group reportedly hopped into a truck and fled, as did the driver in his own car. Sarna collected his dog and ran into the creek area, and Tice staggered down Broad, later collapsing near Creekside Brewing Co. Tice later told investigators he had no recollection of the incident or being stabbed.

The driver of the car—who isn’t being identified by New Times because his name hasn’t been released publicly by the District Attorney’s Office—declined to comment for this story, other than to say there’s more to it than has been reported.

At first glance, the case appears open and shut. Sarna admitted to the stabbing. He has at least one prior conviction for assault with a deadly weapon out of Solano County, for which he was on probation. He was, at the time, a transient, having come to the area to participate in the Occupy SLO movement.

There are a few details, however, that may give an objective observer pause.

First of all, none of the “college-aged kids” is facing a charge for the alleged assault on the driver, despite the fact that the driver’s chain of events was later verified through interviews with witnesses. The men in question are well known in the community; a number of them were student wrestlers at Atascadero High School. Tice himself was a three-time CIF finalist, and later wrestled at Cal State Fullerton. The second alleged victim in the case, Lerno, is the son of a prominent Atascadero bail bondsman.

Tice has previous convictions for public intoxication, but had one dismissed after completing community service, according to court records.

One of the men accompanying Tice and Lerno that night later told investigators that he estimated they had consumed approximately “10 shots of vodka” each, and—save for one designated driver—were “pretty drunk.”

Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham couldn’t be reached for comment on why none of the others involved in the incident is facing charges.

Fred Foss, Sarna’s attorney, didn’t return requests for comment, either, but according to a transcript of Sarna’s Nov. 15 preliminary hearing, it appears as if the attorney is preparing to argue that Sarna acted in self-defense. That may be hard to prove, given that Sarna admitted to investigators he pulled out the blade before any punches were thrown his way.

“We all know that you can only defend yourself with enough force to basically save yourself, and what he did went well beyond that,” Cunningham argued.

Foss countered that in order to prove the attempted murder charge, there had to exist some evidence of malice aforethought.

“I think a person is entitled to use reasonable force in defense of another—and reasonable force in defense of himself—when he is on his back being beaten by at least two people,” Foss said. “I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable for a person to use a weapon to defend himself.”

Furthermore, Foss argued there was no evidence that Sarna assaulted Lerno.

But SLO Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett wasn’t swayed.

“Certainly it may need to be sorted out whether he’s got a viable self-defense claim, I guess, as to all of the counts,” Garrett conceded before ruling that the DNA match from Sarna on the knife’s handle and Tice’s DNA on the blade represented enough evidence to try the case.

Should it move to trial, the attempted murder charge could hinge on whether Foss proves Sarna acted in self-defense. Given his prior arrest, Sarna could be facing a substantial sentence. And Sina Harris, Sarna’s fiancée, is doing everything she can to prevent that.

“Austin is not a violent person,” Harris told New Times. “He likes to help people, and that’s what he thought he was doing that night.”

Up until Sarna’s arrest in September, Harris was living with him in Vallejo, awaiting the birth of their first child together, due next month. Since the January incident, she said, Sarna has been working full time at a Vallejo car wash, and was saving for the family’s future together. She said that prior to SLOPD picking him up in Vallejo, he wasn’t aware the extent of Tice’s injuries.

“It’s been pretty hard for him and myself, seeing all the news reports on him, and they don’t tell the facts of what really happened that night,” Harris said. “He was afraid he was going to be killed that night because there were so many of them.”

She added that she wished the driver of the car would come forward and tell a sober account of the events should the case move to trial.

Harris said she also hopes the alleged victims in the case would be held to the same degree of scrutiny as Sarna if his case moves forward, and she questions why they were never brought in for the original assault on the driver and later, she said, on Sarna.

“It really does seem like this good ol’ boys network,” Harris said.

She’s gone so far as to start a blog to bring attention to Sarna’s case, which can be found at defendingaustinsarna.blogspot.com.

As of press time, Sarna remained in custody at the SLO County jail and was being held without bond. He’s scheduled to return to court for another preliminary hearing Dec. 13.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.