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Suspect in Assaults Freed : Crime: Prosecutors ask judge to release Casitas Springs man because of new test results. He still faces charges in Ojai cases.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just two days after labeling a Casitas Springs man as the Ojai rapist and charging him with 24 felonies, authorities abruptly freed the suspect on Friday, saying forensic tests raised new questions about his guilt.

Jason Edward Hawthorne, who has denied assaulting four women since sheriff’s investigators arrested him one week ago, walked out of the Ventura County Jail and into the rain shortly after 4 p.m.

Escorted by two unidentified women, the 21-year-old wore a blank expression as he made his way through the jail parking lot and climbed into a waiting Jeep Cherokee.

Hawthorne and most of his supporters, who also have insisted on his innocence, declined to speak with reporters.

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But others came to his defense, accusing authorities of charging Hawthorne as a way to quell public fear of an attacker who struck four times from March through September.

“It’s a very disturbing and terrible sullying of this defendant’s name and reputation,” declared Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman, whose office represents Hawthorne.

“It’s kind of scary how the police can have so much power to accuse someone that doesn’t even look like the rapist,” said Joanie George, whose mother is Hawthorne’s landlord.

Some residents of the Ojai area heaved a major sigh of relief after the Sheriff’s Department made the arrest on Jan. 14.

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Investigators contended that “an overwhelming amount of evidence” connected Hawthorne to the unsolved sexual assaults that have shaken the small community. On Wednesday, prosecutors charged him with a string of sexual assault and burglary counts.

Authorities say Hawthorne remains their primary suspect. Even so, they released him from custody Friday after announcing that forensic tests showed that he apparently was not the man who assaulted one of the victims.

That assailant left some undisclosed physical evidence, authorities said. Samples of that type of evidence taken from Hawthorne ruled him out as the attacker, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth. She would not say if the evidence was a body fluid, hair fiber or other genetic information.

Significantly playing down the unusual turn of events, prosecutors and sheriff’s officials strongly defended their accusations against Hawthorne.

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Henke-Dobroth, who filed the 24 sexual-assault and other charges against Hawthorne, said the results of DNA testing would determine if the charges would be dropped against Hawthorne. The DNA evidence is more sophisticated than other serological testing.

Samples of DNA taken from Hawthorne are still weeks away from being completely analyzed, Henke-Dobroth said.

Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Robertson said that his investigators still have additional evidence that links Hawthorne to the crimes. Robertson declined further comment.

But Friday’s release of Hawthorne came about in an unusual way: Prosecutors, not defense attorneys, filed a motion asking that the suspect be allowed to go home.

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The request came just two days after prosecutors had Hawthorne successfully detained in lieu of $500,000 bail. Henke-Dobroth acknowledged it was uncommon for her office to actually request that the court reduce a rape defendant’s bail just days after the filing of multiple charges.

She said it has happened before, although she could not specifically recall the incident.

Municipal Court Judge Edward F. Brodie ordered Hawthorne released with no bail. Hawthorne did not appear before the judge, officials said, but a deputy public defender promised the defendant would return to court Feb. 1 for further proceedings.

One of the assaults Hawthorne is charged with committing involved the brutal beating in April of a 61-year-old Ojai woman who fought off a sexual attack.

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Two others occurred early on the morning of Sept. 2, when a man first assaulted a 64-year-old woman on Taormina Lane in west Ojai. That victim escaped after about 45 minutes by climbing out a window and summoning help.

Hours later, a 54-year-old woman was attacked on El Jina Lane, a remote neighborhood east of Ojai.

In light of the new evidence, Public Defender Clayman called on prosecutors to dismiss all charges against Hawthorne. “Obviously, we believe he’s an innocent man,” Clayman said.

But authorities said the charges would stand for now.

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“There was a lot of investigation done in this case and certainly there were a lot of things that went into the decision to arrest and charge Mr. Hawthorne,” Henke-Dobroth said.

“I can say that the Sheriff’s Department has done an outstanding job in investigating the case,” she added.

Times staff writers Julie Fields and Duncan Martell and correspondent Jan Stevens contributed to this story.


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