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Charges Are Dropped Against Man Accused of Sex Assaults : Casitas Springs: D.A.'s office apologizes to Jason Edward Hawthorne, 21, who had been charged with 24 felonies. Authorities say another suspect is in custody.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors dropped charges and publicly apologized to a 21-year-old Casitas Springs man Monday, saying genetic testing has proven conclusively that he did not commit a string of sexual assaults that provoked fear and outrage across the Ojai Valley.

The exoneration of Jason Edward Hawthorne came more than two weeks after he was arrested and charged with 24 felonies in connection with attacks on four women between March and September of last year.

But while dismissing charges against Hawthorne, authorities Monday announced that they now have in custody the man they believe is really responsible for those assaults. The suspect, who sheriff’s officials refused to identify, is in jail on other charges and has not been charged in the rape cases.

Undersheriff Richard Bryce said the same kind of genetic testing that cleared Hawthorne of wrongdoing could be used to help determine whether the new suspect will be charged with those crimes.

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“We aren’t concerned about him committing further assaults because he is in custody,” Bryce said. “There is no indication at this point that he will be getting out soon. We do not feel there is any need for concern in the Ojai Valley right now.”

Police began to doubt their case and released Hawthorne two days after charging him when early test results proved inconclusive. Further tests showed that he was not the man involved in the assaults.

Bryce said sheriff’s officials spoke with Hawthorne and his mother, Lana, Monday to apologize for the embarrassment caused by the arrest. The district attorney’s office also issued a public apology.

“Although there was legal cause to do so, it is regrettable that Mr. Hawthorne was arrested and charged in this matter,” said Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury in a prepared statement.

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“On behalf of the office of the district attorney, I apologize to him and his family for the embarrassment and upset this has caused.”

Hawthorne, who has maintained his innocence, declined comment Monday.

But Public Defender Ken Clayman, whose office represented Hawthorne, said he was pleased that prosecutors owned up to their mistake. Nevertheless, Clayman said the arrest amounted to “a terrible besmirching of his (Hawthorne’s) reputation.

“I think that certainly it could have been handled without taking him and arresting him, subjecting him to all that publicity,” Clayman said. “If they had a suspicion, they could have kept an eye on him until the (DNA) tests were done.”

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Hawthorne’s arrest came after a series of sexual assaults in the Ojai Valley that choked the community with fear.

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From March to September of last year, four women were attacked by an assailant wearing a nylon stocking mask and described as a soft-spoken man with auburn hair.

The attacks set off an exhaustive investigation by sheriff’s deputies, including the distribution of a composite drawing of the suspect and a search of the Meiners Oaks area where the suspect was believed to live.

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On Jan. 14, sheriff’s deputies arrested Hawthorne and accused him of the crimes. Friends and family jumped to his defense, saying Hawthorne was the victim of a witch hunt and accusing authorities of charging him as a way to quell fear stirred up by the attacks.

But sheriff’s officials said detectives had amassed “an overwhelming amount of evidence” against the Ventura High School graduate.

Authorities added that they were awaiting the results of so-called genetic fingerprinting to solidify their case.

Experts say that no two people, aside from identical twins, have the same genetic coding. Genetic material, known as DNA, can be extracted from hair, blood, semen or human tissue left at a crime scene. When investigators compare it with DNA from a suspect, they can offer evidence of innocence or guilt.

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In Hawthorne’s case, it proved his innocence.

Two days after charging him with 24 felonies--including multiple sexual assaults, residential burglary and the use of a deadly weapon--authorities freed Hawthorne, saying that forensic tests were inconclusive about whether he assaulted one of the victims.

Bryce said further review of the evidence ultimately concluded that Hawthorne was not responsible for any of the assaults.

“Initially, the evidence pointed directly at him,” Bryce said. “But our investigators are of the quality that they didn’t quit, they kept looking at it. As the evidence was analyzed with greater and greater accuracy, there came a point where he was excluded as a suspect.”

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Bryce said while authorities now regret the decision to arrest Hawthorne, they had a tough decision to make at the time.

“With the understanding that conclusive results from DNA testing would take weeks to complete, the decision to arrest Hawthorne was made after carefully weighing his individual rights against an ongoing potential threat to the community,” he said.

“Any time you arrest the wrong person, you feel badly about that,” Bryce added. “But under the circumstances, given the evidence present at the time, I think the proper decision was made.”

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In the Ojai Valley, where the attacks sparked town hall meetings and self-defense workshops, residents say they hope the Sheriff’s Department has the right man this time.

“I hope, without a doubt, this is the fellow,” said Elizabeth Wikle, an Ojai Valley resident who helped form a group called Ojai’s PEACE of Mind in the wake of the assaults.

“What we don’t want is for them to tell us they have someone in custody and that causes the women of the Ojai Valley to put their guard down,” she said. “That’s not responsible. It’s just not responsible.”

Times staff writer Dwayne Bray and correspondent Jan Stevens contributed to this report.

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