A public defender likened television news crews who let their cameras roll as they confronted a sex offender at his mother's home in Oakdale to people who poke beehives with a stick, then complain if they get stung.
In the case of Darren Kawamoto -- a sex offender who did his time, but threatened to slit the throats of reporters and cameramen who came to his front door Oct. 10, 2008 -- the consequences are far more severe.
Kawamoto told his story to two sets of jurors, in March and again in May. The first panel could not reach verdicts, but the second panel said Kawamoto is guilty of making criminal threats while waving a box cutter.
The 44-year-old now faces sentences of 25 years to life in prison for each of the six people he threatened. Judge Ricardo Córdova is expected to impose his sentence July 27.
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Kawamoto's mother, who asked that her name not be used, said reporters believed her son was a child molester because a sex offender registry published by the California Department of Justice says Kawamoto's sex crimes involve a child under 14.
He actually was convicted of raping, assaulting and robbing an Oakdale woman on Halloween in 1988, sneaking into her home after her husband went to work.
"They kept running the camera and the lights," Kawamoto's mother said, recalling the night that news reporters knocked on her door and filmed the exterior of her home.
Oakdale police drew attention to Kawamoto by scheduling a public meeting to discuss sex offenders and safety tips after Kawamoto registered as a sex offender with Oakdale and Riverbank police, telling both agencies that he had no fixed address.
Dozens of people attended the meeting, including Kawamoto's victim, who was concerned for her safety, and neighbors who were alarmed to see him back in town.
Kawamoto had been implicated in a string of violent sexual offenses; he was convicted of five felonies in connection with one rape and acquitted of charges related to a second rape. He was paroled to Fresno County in 2004 after serving about 14 years of a 25-year prison sentence.
He has been to prison for burglary and assault in Alameda County.
News crews from three television stations in Sacramento -- Channel 3 KCRA, News 10 and Fox 40 -- covered the meeting at Bianchi Community Center, then went to a home on Snedigar Road to get Kawamoto's side of the story.
The three channels broadcast stories about the meeting and their news crews' encounter with Kawamoto. Both juries saw video taken that night and heard from the media, including reporters Jamie Soriano of Fox 40, Cornell Barnard of News 10 and Richard Sharp of KCRA.
Witnesses told the court that a little girl answered the door but was quickly replaced by Kawamoto, who shut the door without comment. Moments later, Kawamoto came outside and launched into a tirade, telling reporters to get off his property.
'A life for a life sentence'
Reporters and their cameramen backed away, but continued filming, especially when a relative came outside and restrained Kawamoto.
At one point, Kawamoto reached into his jacket and pulled out a box cutter, which he waved at members of the media. He also uttered this threat: "If this goes in the media, I'm going to hunt down every one of you. A life for a life sentence."
News crews retreated to the street and packed up their gear but lingered near their vans, chatting. Kawamoto popped up again, repeatedly asking them where they lived and what they were doing at his home.
No one was injured.
After he was arrested, Kawamoto told television reporters that he had been harassed by people who made angry gestures as they drove by his mother's house. He told jurors that he overreacted when reporters came to the house because he wanted to protect his family from shame and humiliation.
Box cutter crossed the line
Deputy District Attorney Doug Maner said Kawamoto crossed the line when he waved the box cutter and followed members of the media into the street. He said Kawamoto could have simply shut the door and ignored reporters' requests for an interview.
"Mr. Kawamoto did not have the right to threaten them, to try to stab them, or to scare them or threaten to kill them," he said.
The prosecutor said he will ask the judge to impose the maximum sentence for six felonies, because Kawamoto is a threat to the public. He said he will be satisfied as long as the judge imposes at least one term of 25 years to life.
Deputy Public Defender Maureen Keller could not be reached for comment, but in court she blamed the media for instigating the assault, according to a transcript that is part of the official record.
Before the case went to trial, she argued that the charges should be reduced to misdemeanors, a move that would let Kawamoto escape the consequences of California's three strikes law, saying members of the media were looking for a confrontation so they would have dramatic footage of a sex offender.
At sentencing, the defense attorney could ask the judge to "strike" some of Kawamoto's prior felony convictions and run his latest convictions concurrently.
At a preliminary hearing, Keller noted that no one from the media called 911 until filming was finished.
"They were looking for something to put on the news," Keller said, according to a transcript. "And they got that."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.