Los Angeles prosecutors Wednesday declined to file criminal charges against a security guard who shot and wounded a YouTube personality during a bizarre clash outside a synagogue last month, an announcement that came just hours after the woman filed a civil lawsuit against the guard and his employers.
Edduin Zelayagrunfeld, 44, was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon Feb. 14 after shooting 45-year-old Zhoie Perez while she was filming outside the Etz Jacob Congregation/Ohel Chana High School building in the Fairfax district.
Prosecutors had asked the LAPD to conduct a deeper investigation into the incident before they made a filing decision, but they formally rejected the charges Wednesday. In a declination memorandum, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Harlan wrote that prosecutors ultimately would not be able to disprove Zelayagrunfeld was acting in self-defense.
Videos that Perez posted to her YouTube channel, where she is better known as “Furry Potato,” show the guard repeatedly telling Perez to leave the area and constantly moving his hand toward his firearm, even though she is standing on a public sidewalk.
At one point in the video, Zelayagrunfeld threatens to shoot Perez if she does not move away from an entrance. The guard appears to have his weapon pointed toward the ground when a gunshot is heard in the video.
Before the shooting, Zelayagrunfeld had asked school staff to move students to a safe location, triggering a lockdown, according to the memo filed by the district attorney’s office. Taken together with recent surges in anti-Semitic hate crimes and the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh roughly four months earlier, prosecutors believed the guard’s “perception of Perez’s behavior as dangerous was reasonable.”
“Perez went to a Jewish school, and place of worship, dressed in all black and with a backpack secured to her body by a harness,” the document read. “As Zelaya told detectives, Perez’s backpack could have contained a bomb, and her attire could have concealed a firearm or other deadly weapon.”
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Perez accused the guard, the high school and the Etz Jacob Torah Center of assault, false imprisonment, negligence and discrimination. The suit repeatedly points out that Perez — a self-described “1st Amendment auditor” whose videos center on reaffirming her right to film in public, sometimes with confrontational results — had remained peaceful and on a public sidewalk despite the guard’s hostile actions.
“Following plaintiff’s lawful recording of the interaction, defendant [Zelayagrunfeld] became belligerent and without provocation, justification, or reason began to harass, intimidate, coerce, and threaten plaintiff with deadly force, including without limitation, repeatedly pointing his finger and gun at plaintiff’s face, yelling at and threatening to shoot plaintiff,” the suit read.
Perez suffered what she described as a “deep graze” and was treated and released from a hospital within hours of the clash. The bullet that struck Perez ricocheted off the sidewalk, according to the district attorney’s memo.
Her attorney, John Carpenter, criticized prosecutors for failing to bring charges against the security guard.
“There is no reason for [Los Angeles County Dist. Atty.] Jackie Lacey not to be prosecuting this crime,” he said. “This crime is documented from beginning to end on video and audio tape.”
Carpenter also contended that the incident was driven, in part, by the fact that Perez is transgender. LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said investigators did not consider the incident to be a bias crime.
Attempts to contact Zelayagrunfeld have been unsuccessful. An employee who answered the phone at the synagogue referred questions to the Los Angeles Police Department and could not provide the name of an attorney for the congregation. A woman at the high school hung up the phone when contacted by a Times reporter Wednesday.
On her YouTube channel, Perez seems to repeatedly prod at the edges of busy or popular locations around Los Angeles in her videos, sparking interactions that start out playfully confrontational but can sometimes grow tense.
Late last year, Perez posted a video from outside the Islamic Center of Southern California in Koreatown. She was pepper-sprayed by a security guard. The LAPD also responded to that scene, and Perez said she was on a public sidewalk when the guard sprayed her.
The February clash outside the synagogue stoked concern in the neighborhood in the wake of a rise in anti-Semitic crimes across the nation. Late last year, a Seattle man was accused of trying to run two men over outside another Los Angeles synagogue while yelling slurs in what prosecutors have termed a hate-motivated attack.
Since the February incident, Perez has not produced any 1st Amendment audit videos, said Carpenter, who defended his client’s decision to film outside a synagogue despite the recent surge in anti-Semitic incidents.