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Man Arrested in Ojai Valley Sexual Attacks : Crime: Casitas Springs resident is held in connection with series of assaults that outraged small community.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 21-year-old Casitas Springs man was arrested Saturday evening in connection with a string of sexual assaults last year that outraged residents of the Ojai Valley and set off an exhaustive investigation by sheriff’s deputies.

Jason Hawthorne was taken into custody without incident Saturday and was booked into County Jail late Saturday night, authorities said.

According to Ventura County sheriff’s officials, detectives have amassed “an overwhelming amount of evidence” against Hawthorne and are awaiting the results of DNA testing. Before making the arrest, sheriff’s detectives presented the case to the district attorney’s office for review.

Longtime City Councilwoman Nina Shelley said she was relieved to hear that a suspect was in custody, but expressed surprise that the arrest had not come sooner because of widespread publicity surrounding the attacks.

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“I think women were fearful and outraged that something like this could happen in a small community,” she said. “I think one of the things that disturbed us all was that this person appeared to be a stalker.”

The sexual assaults of four women occurred between March and September. In each incident, the assailant wore a nylon stocking mask and was described as a soft-spoken man with auburn hair.

The attacks began March 13 when a 44-year-old woman was raped about 3 a.m. in her house on Pueblo Avenue in Meiners Oaks. About a month later, on April 16, a 61-year-old woman was badly beaten when she fought off a man who entered her home on Carillo Road in Ojai about 1:30 a.m.

After that foiled attack, no other incidents were reported for five months.

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Then, on Sept. 2, a man matching the same description assaulted a 64-year-old woman before dawn in her home on Taormina Lane in west Ojai. The woman escaped after about 45 minutes by jumping out a window and screaming for help.

Hours later, a 54-year-old woman was attacked at the east end of town in her home on El Jina Lane.

Authorities on Saturday described Hawthorne as a white male, 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, with auburn-red hair. Detectives contacted Hawthorne after noticing that a booking photograph of him from a separate arrest closely matched a police composite drawing of the rape suspect.

The suspect’s mother, Lana Hawthorne of Oak View, referred questions to the family’s attorney late Saturday.

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“I can tell you that he’s not guilty,” she said. She declined further comment.

Throughout the investigation, detectives theorized that the rapist might live in the Ojai Valley. Hundreds of suspects were identified and ruled out. In September, deputies spent more than 400 hours canvassing Meiners Oaks where the suspect was thought to live.

Residents and shop owners papered the Ojai Valley with composite drawings of the suspect.

More than 200 Ojai Valley residents, almost all women, gathered at a town hall meeting where sheriff’s commanders discussed the case. Later, self-defense workshops and a “community speak-out” were organized for women to express their fear and frustration.

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Elizabeth Wikle, an Ojai Valley resident who helped form a group called Ojai’s PEACE of Mind in the wake of the assaults, said she believes the suspect had left the area for a while but returned recently. She said the suspect may have even tried to gain entry to the homes of other women in the Ojai Valley to commit more assaults.

“I find it rather interesting that this has happened now, when just in the last week or so two women who are new to me have called and said they have seen (the suspect and) his light blue truck,” Wikle said. “Just in the last two weeks, he has tried to accost women in Ojai.”

Shelley, like other women in the Ojai Valley, said she has been taking extra precautions since the attacks began 10 months ago.

“It’s a long time to wait for somebody to be apprehended,” she said.

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