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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

White Center man charged with hate crime after victim’s death

By Sara Jean Green Seattle Times

WHITE CENTER, Wash. – King County prosecutors have charged a 23-year-old White Center man with first-degree assault and a hate crime, alleging he beat a gay man unconscious and left him to die, causing a severe head injury that contributed to the man’s accidental death four months later.

The early morning encounter between Kevin Johnson, 62, and Javier Perez-Esparza happened in July 2021, but prosecutors didn’t file charges until this week because Johnson’s death that November was being investigated as a potential homicide, charging papers say.

A warrant for Perez-Esparza’s arrest was issued Monday, the same day charges were filed, but he was not in custody as of Thursday, court and jail records show.

King County prosecutors have filed 269 hate crime cases since 2018. While the majority of them are based on a suspect’s perception of a victim’s race or ethnicity, the second most common hate crime charge is based on a victim’s sexual orientation, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. At least 49 such cases have been filed since 2018, including two this year, and at least 23 other cases involved a victim’s gender or gender expression, he said.

Under state law, a person commits a hate crime if they injure or threaten someone – or destroy their property – because of perceptions of that person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or mental, physical or sensory disability.

Johnson was found unconscious and unresponsive on the south shoulder of Southwest 98th Street near 16th Avenue Southwest in White Center early July 9, 2021. He was taken to a Burien hospital and later transferred to Tacoma General Hospital, where he underwent surgery for traumatic brain injuries that left him comatose until August, charging papers say.

Johnson was released the following month to the care of his mother, a retired nurse.

Video surveillance footage from nearby businesses showed a man, later identified as Perez-Esparza, following Johnson and appearing to exchange words with him as Johnson walked south on 17th Avenue Southwest, say the charges. Johnson began running as he turned onto Southwest 98th Street, where his car was parked, and Perez-Esparza chased after him, catching up in front of an auto repair business, according to the charges.

The video showed a struggle before Johnson fell to the pavement. After running from the scene, Perez-Esparza returned three times over more than 30 minutes, crouching over Johnson and “doing something with his person,” a King County sheriff’s detective wrote in charging papers. Soon after, the video captured a gold Chevrolet Malibu driving away from the area.

At 4:40 a.m., a garbage truck driver unknowingly ran over Johnson’s left arm, breaking it, the charges say. Someone discovered Johnson soon after and summoned help.

Two detectives later came across a gold Malibu parked in front of a house on 18th Avenue Southwest, where Perez-Esparza lived in a basement apartment, the charges say. The detectives knocked on the door and interviewed Perez-Esparza, who said he punched Johnson in the face because he claimed Johnson groped and propositioned him, according to charging papers. Perez-Esparza told the detectives he returned to his apartment but came back outside a few minutes later, chased Johnson and hit him in the head, knocking him unconscious, the charges say.

Perez-Esparza also told the detectives he was “mad and intoxicated” when he assaulted Johnson – and the charges say he returned to the scene three times because he thought Johnson had stolen his car keys, which he later found in his apartment.

Johnson insisted on returning home that October, after being released from the hospital the month before, even though he could no longer work or manage his daily life because of his traumatic brain injury, charging papers say. His mother later told detectives he would get confused and lost in his neighborhood, which led to at least two contacts with Seattle police.

“She said his life was dramatically altered as a result of the assault and he had never been the same,” a detective wrote in charging papers. “He was easily agitated, had memory loss and his cognitive abilities were severely impacted.”

Johnson owned a house less than a mile north of where he was attacked, according to property records.

A woman walking her dog in Burien’s Salmon Creek Ravine Park called 911 on Nov. 25, 2021, after finding a man lying unresponsive and half dressed in the creek, the charges say. The man, identified after his death as Johnson, had cuts, scratches and bruises all over his body and was taken to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, according to the charges. He died two days later.

The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Johnson’s death was accidental, stemming from hypothermia, say the charges. A symptom of hypothermia is shedding one’s clothes, and investigators found items of clothing scattered near the creek where he’d been found.

Methamphetamine intoxication and Johnson’s preexisting brain injury were also listed as contributors to his death, charging papers say.