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Fringe California gubernatorial candidate under fire for helping assailant flee L.A. protest

VIDEO | 00:45
Press member attacked for no reason

A man in a flannel shirt prepares to hit independent filmmaker Rocky Romano, far left in helmet, over the head with a bat.

A fringe Republican candidate in California’s gubernatorial recall election is under fire from activists for helping a man flee a transgender rights protest in Los Angeles after he’d struck a member of the media over the head with a bat.

An advisor to Sarah Stephens, who responded to questions about the July 3 incident on the candidate’s behalf, said Stephens had felt threatened by “antifa” and was trying to get herself and others to safety, but would have acted differently had she known about the assault.

“Sarah just recently discovered that one of the people who jumped in her car was allegedly in an altercation with antifa,” advisor Barry Silbermann wrote in an email to The Times. “If she would have known this she would not have let that individual into her car and would have reported it to authorities immediately. Sarah does not support or endorse any criminal activity.”

Video of the incident showed that what Silbermann described as an “altercation with antifa” was actually an attack from behind on an independent filmmaker named Rocky Romano, who was filming the protest and had the word “PRESS” written across his back in bold letters.

“At first I didn’t know what happened. Everything went gray for a minute,” Romano said of the moment he was struck.

He believes he may have suffered a mild concussion, and would have fared far worse if he hadn’t made the decision earlier in the day to wear a hard helmet.

Capt. Stacy Spell, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said Friday that the incident is under investigation by the department’s Major Crimes Division.

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The attack occurred outside the Wi Spa in Westlake, which anti-transgender protesters have targeted for accepting transgender customers in compliance with state law. Pro-LGBT activists have counter-protested.

Stephens, running as a Republican in California’s gubernatorial recall election to determine if Gov. Gavin Newsom will be replaced, has been a vocal critic of policies that seek to protect the rights of transgender people. She also opposes vaccination mandates and other COVID-19 safety protocols and spoke at an anti-vaccination rally that also turned violent in downtown L.A. on Saturday.

In multiple videos captured and compiled by Romano and his film crew, independent journalist Tina-Desiree Berg and others, the man who later got into Stephens’ car can be seen running up behind Romano and striking him on the helmet with a bat or rod before backing up into the street, jumping wildly up and down while brandishing the rod, and then rushing back in the direction of Stephens’ vehicle, which was parked on a side street.

Other video shows the same man, a second man and Stephens together on the same side street before the assault, talking to each other, and then both men getting back into Stephens’ car.

The sidewalk near the car was largely empty as they piled in, according to the video, though Romano and other independent journalists were quickly moving in that direction. As the car pulled away, one man in the back screamed an anti-gay slur out the window as a woman in the car told everyone there to put their heads down.

“That felt so good cracking him in the head,” a man can be heard saying from the back seat.

Berg said she determined the driver of the vehicle was Stephens after running into her at a subsequent protest event and thinking she looked familiar. Berg then found Stephens in video she had from the July 3 protest, as well as video from inside the vehicle that was posted to Instagram by the second man who got into Stephens’ car.

Private investigators also helped Berg and other activists connect the license plate on the car to Stephens, and the independent Status Coup News posted a YouTube video by Berg about the incident under the headline, “CA Gov Candidate GETAWAY DRIVER for Proud Boys Lead Pipe Attack.”

This week, The Times provided links to the Status Coup video as well as to Twitter videos of the incident to the LAPD, asking for comment on the attack and whether it is under investigation, on the assailant’s identity, and on Stephens’ involvement.

Spell, the LAPD spokesman, said the information provided by The Times contained “specific details that the department had not been made aware of prior,” and that the agency was launching an investigation.

Spell said the case has been assigned to the department’s Major Crimes Division, as have cases related to assaults that occurred at the anti-vaccination rally in downtown on Saturday.

The Times sent to Stephens the same videos it sent to police.

Silbermann, on Stephens’ behalf, wrote in an initial email that “those alleging this as ‘a getaway driver’ allegation are making false and defamatory statements of which a notice to cease and desist is in process.”

He wrote that Stephens and her security had been “warned to leave” the July 3 event because “Antifa was nearby, on the move and threatening,” and that Stephens “was not going to leave and let others be left to be harmed so many piled into her car.”

“She had no knowledge of who or what their activity had been,” Silbermann wrote.

In a second email, Silbermann wrote that Stephens had “recently discovered” the allegations against the man who struck Romano, would not have let him into her car had she known of them at the time, and would be willing to assist police in any investigation into the events.

“Sarah stands for truth, safety, and secure streets,” Silbermann wrote. “Sarah is willing to work with authorities to find the person who allegedly committed a crime.”

Silbermann did not respond to follow-up questions from The Times asking if Stephens would provide the name of the man who got into her car to the newspaper.

The man had a mask and goggles on, obscuring his face, and The Times was not able to independently confirm his identity.

Activists, however, say they know him well — and allege he has committed similar attacks at multiple other protests in the L.A. area in recent months. They question why police haven’t arrested him.

Berg said the man often wears the same clothes and a distinctive scarf, and has given interviews with right-wing media outlets in which he talks openly about his exploits. She said she fears he will commit more violence if he isn’t stopped soon.

Romano, who has been filming protests for a while, also said he has seen the man commit other assaults, and questions why he hasn’t been brought to justice.

He said the attacks outside Wi Spa and at protests since, including the anti-vaccination rally that Stephens spoke at in downtown L.A. on Saturday, where two people were stabbed, represent a dangerous escalation in violence at street protests in the city.

“It’s become a whole different ballgame,” he said.


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