Three teenagers were charged with murder Wednesday in connection with the stoning and beating death of a 58-year-old homeless man as he slept in a Ventura River encampment.
As a dozen family members and friends of the defendants looked on, the 18-year-old youths were also charged in Ventura County Superior Court with robbing the victim, James Richard Clark. The three are eligible for the death penalty.
A fourth defendant, a 14-year-old juvenile, remained in custody and was expected to be charged with murder today. Prosecutors will argue to have him tried as an adult.
"As a prosecutor, I see all sorts of cases, and this case kind of makes your blood run cold," Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox said outside court Wednesday.
Timothy John Becker, Christopher Michael Dunham and Robert Allen Upton, all 18, are suspected of robbing Clark on the night of June 29 at a homeless encampment near the mouth of the Ventura River. They allegedly returned later and pelted Clark with rocks and kicked him repeatedly in the head as he lay in his sleeping bag.
Clark's body was found by maintenance workers the next morning, authorities said.
Relatives and friends of Becker and Dunham hugged each other and sobbed during their brief court appearance before Judge Ken Riley.
Friends said Becker and Dunham were not affiliated with any gangs and had avoided trouble until meeting up with Upton, who is also facing attempted murder charges in the July 1 stabbing of a man on the Ventura promenade.
The dead man's nephew, Tom Clark, struggled to make sense of his uncle's brutal killing.
"Here was a guy who stepped out of society because he didn't want to bother anyone and somebody whacks him," he said. "It's a cowardly crime for someone to do."
He said his uncle moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Thousand Oaks in 1972 to be near other family members. Soon after, the Army veteran found a job as a sheet metal worker and rented a house in Newbury Park.
Battling alcoholism, James Clark abandoned his home and job in the mid-1970s to "move to Ventura and go camping," said Tom Clark.
James Clark had become a popular fixture on Main Street and among the surfers at the beach just south of the Ventura River. Several police officers also described Clark as a friendly person who never caused any problems.
"He would watch the surfers' equipment and boards when they were surfing and they would pay him with McDonalds," Tom Clark said.
Times staff writer Jenifer Ragland contributed to this story.