On May 31, 2008, sometime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., in the vicinity of the Isla Vista Medical Clinic, a 53-year-old homeless man named Gregory Ghan was beaten so badly that he fell into a coma. Ten days later at Cottage Hospital, with no tangible possibility of his regaining consciousness, his family removed him from life support and he died.
Since the assault, Sheriff’s investigators have struggled to find Ghan’s attackers and to build a strong, prosecutable case against them. A year has passed without any arrests and many of Santa Barbara’s homeless, and homeless advocates, have grown frustrated and cynical. Rightly or wrongly, they wonder if the same efforts are being made on Ghan’s behalf as would be made on behalf of other, socially respectable victims.
With next week marking the one-year anniversary of Ghan’s assault, The Santa Barbara Independent thought it a good time to find out where the case stands and if Sheriff’s officials expect to make any arrests in the near future.
The short answer to that latter question is, unfortunately, no. While it is clear that substantial efforts have been made to crack the case, until now law enforcement officials haven’t been free to speak about them publicly.
Lieutenant Sol Linver and Sergeant Ross Ruth, who supervised the Santa Barbara County Sheriff Department’s Crimes Against Persons division last year, both said evidence against three suspects-two male juveniles, and one adult male-was submitted by the Sheriff’s Department to the District Attorney’s Office last month, along with a request for Penal Code 245 indictments, i.e., assault leading to great bodily injury (GBI). But Darryl Perlin, senior prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office, rejected the case for prosecution, claiming the evidence was too weak to convince a jury of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, with suspects pinpointed but insufficient physical evidence to prosecute, the case is in limbo. Still, Linver and Ruth said if new information emerges, Ghan’s death might be vindicated in a court of law yet.
What made this case so tough, investigators said, were the 10 days Ghan spent in the hospital after his assault and before being removed from life support, time that allowed his wounds to heal significantly. (Because Ghan was in the intensive care unit, there was no opportunity for a forensic examination to be given.) In cases like this, wounds constitute physical evidence; they tell a story, so to speak. If he had died immediately, investigators could have figured out, for example, if he’d fallen on a broken planter, how many times he was kicked, how many times he was hit, and more.
Ghan was one of the many homeless who avoid the shelters. Whether it was being in close proximity to others or because he was a chronic alcoholic, shelters just weren’t for him. He was a camper and a loner. Social workers knew him mostly from downtown, but last spring he was spotted more frequently in Isla Vista. On May 31, 2008, the Chula Vista festival in Anisq’Oyo’ Park drew even more partyers than usual to Isla Vista and Ghan was among them. Where he drank, how much he drank, and with whom will probably remain a mystery. What is known, however, is that sometime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., he landed in front of the Isla Vista Medical Clinic, perhaps getting ready to camp.
At some point within those four hours, a group of young adults, white males, none of them gang members or homeless, walked by Ghan. An altercation occurred (Ruth is decidedly mum about what triggered it) and a fight broke out. Outnumbered, Ghan was repeatedly hit and kicked. Around 2:30 a.m., pedestrians passing in front of the clinic heard a man moaning. They saw Ghan’s bloodied condition and called 911. By the time he arrived at Cottage Hospital’s Emergency Room, he was unresponsive. The cause of death was later determined to be blunt-force craniocerebral trauma.
Sheriff’s investigators spoke with scores of Isla Vista residents-94 interviews to be exact-including homeless people, UCSB students, fraternity brothers, and business owners. They distributed more than 300 flyers with Ghan’s photo and requesting information. They established a tip line. In the fall, a cryptic message was left that ultimately led to the three suspects now believed responsible. (Authorities think four others could have been involved, but currently they don’t have sufficient evidence on them.)
When the young men were interviewed-at least two times apiece-some of them were surprised, shocked even, that Ghan had died. A few expressed remorse, Ruth said. Still, different versions of the event were given. Some had Ghan getting up and walking away after the fight, for example. Without strong physical evidence to back up statements, the investigative team wanted search warrants from the DA. But Perlin denied them because he said the evidence submitted didn’t show probable cause. As the holidays approached, the case was pretty much dead in the water.
Lt. Linver is an Isla Vista Foot Patrol veteran. In his four years on that beat, he has developed a somewhat tolerant, perhaps even soft-hearted attitude toward the homeless there. He even took a couple of them out to lunch on their birthdays.
Linver did not want to give up on Ghan’s case. After the warrants were denied, he called in the investigative team to hear what evidence they had. Then he suggested a couple of novel and relatively far-fetched methods of garnering evidence (the details of which the department declined to divulge), and they worked.
“After that, the case kind of broke open,” Ruth recalled. “Enough that it led to other witnesses and other statements. Again, some of it was contradictory.” Normally, that’s where the physical evidence comes in, Ruth said, to back up witness statements. Sadly, in this case, it just wasn’t there.
There are witnesses to the assault whose testimony would make all the difference, if they were willing to provide it in a courtroom. But they aren’t. The one witness who is willing to testify was intoxicated during the crime and mainly heard what happened. “He’s not even a witness,” Perlin said. He also commented that Ghan’s homelessness had nothing to do with his decision not to file charges, but was based simply on the fact that with the evidence at hand guilt could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that the homeless are treated differently than the non-homeless,” Perlin said. “I’m not filing charges because Mr. Ghan was homeless or not homeless. [The question is] can I walk into a court and convince 12 people that the person or persons did it beyond a reasonable doubt?”
Ruth remains positive that more tips will come in. Until then, the suspects remain free in Santa Barbara County.
Father Jon-Stephen Hedges, a minister at Isla Vista’s Saint Athanasius Church, which provides a weekly meal and assistance to the homeless, knew Ghan only a little. He’s disappointed that the charges weren’t filed. “This is one of the ones where a wrong really got done and really needs to be made right,” he said.
If you or anyone you know has any information that pertains to this crime, the Sheriff’s Department would like you to call the anonymous tip line at 681-4171.