Man, 20, Gets Life in Transient's Death

Times Staff Writer

As his parents wept, a 20-year-old Oak View man was ordered Monday to serve a life term for crimes that included kicking and beating a homeless man to death and stealing his possessions from a beachside encampment.

Robert Coffman, who prosecutors portrayed at trial as a violent white supremacist, made no statements before Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley rejected a defense request to reduce his sentence.

Instead, Riley imposed consecutive life prison terms on Coffman for two unrelated assaults he committed in June 2000 that left one man dead and another critically wounded.

It was the sentence victims' relatives had hoped for.

"What Mr. Coffman did that night is unforgivable," said Janet DeSpain, whose brother-in-law, James Clark, was killed by Coffman and three other teens.

The slaying occurred when the teens stumbled over the 58-year-old sleeping transient while walking to a beach party near Surfers Point in Ventura on June 30, 2001. They kicked and stoned Clark, then stole his backpack and other belongings.

According to court testimony, Coffman told friends that he later returned to the injured man and kicked him again, remarking that he was going to "give him a deeper sleep." Clark died after suffering injuries that included a crushed kidney, a broken rib and a possible skull fracture.

During police interviews, Coffman admitted kicking "a bum" and described how the others also participated in the attack.

Co-defendants Timothy Becker and Christopher Dunham both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last year and are now serving 15-year-to-life sentences.

A fourth teen, Rocky Mattley, was convicted of second-degree murder in Juvenile Court and is serving time at the California Youth Authority.

On Monday, DeSpain and other relatives of Clark told Riley that Coffman, who was convicted of first-degree murder, has shown no remorse and deserves the maximum punishment for his crime.

"James Clark was homeless, but, to use Mr. Coffman's words, he was not 'just a bum,' " said DeSpain, who said Clark was an Army veteran and well-known beach dweller trusted by surfers.

In addition to murder and robbery, Coffman was found guilty of attempted murder in the stabbing of Daniel McGrath, 19, at the Ventura beachfront promenade a day after Clark's slaying.

A judge allowed jurors to hear testimony about the two assaults after prosecutors argued that they stemmed from the same murderous rage. The attacks occurred within 48 hours and a mile of each other.

According to court testimony, McGrath was walking with his ex-girlfriend when three teens, including Coffman, confronted him and started a fight. He was stabbed five times in the chest, arm and back.

McGrath also spoke during Monday's sentencing, describing the attack as a life-altering incident that left him with tremendous pain and a partially paralyzed left arm.

"He has hurt a lot of innocent people who did nothing to him," McGrath said of the defendant.

Defense attorneys James Farley and Kay Duffy asked Riley to reduce the sentence to second-degree murder in light of the prison terms imposed on the other defendants and group involvement in Clark's slaying.

In her closing remarks, Duffy told Riley that Coffman is remorseful and hopes other teens will learn from his mistakes. She and Farley argued at trial that Coffman was not a white supremacist, but a teen mixed up with drugs and the wrong crowd.

Coffman will be eligible for parole after 25 years.

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