State

Box cutter threat earns sex offender 36 years

A sex offender who did his time but brandished a box cutter while threatening TV reporters and cameramen who confronted him at his mother's Oakdale home was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison Monday.

Darren Kawamoto faced 25 years to life for each of the six people he threatened in October under California's "three strikes" law.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova said he watched footage of Kawamoto's confrontation with the news crews about 20 times and was struck by the rage in Kawamoto's face.

"I think he was justified in opening the door and yelling at (the media)," Córdova said. "Unfortunately, he didn't stop there."

Kawamoto, 45, tearfully apologized to his victims, who did not make statements in court.

"I didn't have the right to scare them," Kawamoto said. "I really thought it was affecting my family."

Kawamoto told his story to two juries, first in March and again in May. The first panel could not reach a verdict, but the second panel said Kawamoto was guilty of making criminal threats while waving a box cutter.

Kawamoto's mother 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 was convicted of raping, assaulting and robbing an Oakdale woman on Halloween in 1988, sneaking into her home after her husband went to work.

"My son was only trying to protect his family," Kawamoto's mother wrote in a statement, read in court by his aunt. "The media was pounding on the door. They wouldn't leave. ... I believe the only reason the media came to our house is because they thought Darren was a child molester."

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.

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 Sacramento television stations — Channel 3 KCRA, News 10 and Fox 40 — covered the meeting at Bianchi Community Center and then went to a home on Snedigar Road to get Kawamoto's side of the story.

The three stations 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.

Reporters and their cameramen backed away but continued filming, even 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 the TV news crews, and said: "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.

Deputy District Attorney Doug Maner said Kawamoto could have shut the door and ignored reporters' requests for an interview but made a choice to wave a box cutter and follow them into the street.

Deputy Public Defender Maureen Keller said the actions of the media also were to blame.

"They went out there to get the most exciting news story they could," Keller said. "They created that."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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