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DA Whitewashed Neo-Nazi in Assault Trial From 2017 Trump MAGA Rally

Jessica Aguilar: Protesting Nazis while brown. Photo illustration by Federico Medina/mugshot courtesy the Orange County district attorney’s office

When twice slapped in the face by 5-foot-4-inch college student Jessica Aguilar during a clash between white supremacists and anti-fascists at a March 2017 pro-Donald Trump rally in Huntington Beach, neo-Nazi antagonizer Tyler Laube laughed it off as inconsequential. 

But to Deputy District Attorney Laila Nikaien, the slaps warranted arrest, prosecution, consumption of public resources for more than two years, 25 court appearances and the chance to put Aguilar, a member of Antifa, in jail for a year, while giving Laube another opportunity to laugh.

Though the neo-Nazis committed the most brutal acts of violence during the rally, including Laube’s unprovoked pummeling of then-OC Weekly intern Frank John Tristan, local prosecutors decided to pursue charges against only one person: Aguilar, a Latina. 

You might think Orange County’s government officials would go out of their way to prove they aren’t aligned with white supremacists, especially given shifting demographics decidedly moving the area’s voting habits away from the neanderthal extremists who dominated much of our history. But outbursts stemming from an ugly past continue to emerge. We’re home to white students openly celebrating Nazism, donning blackface to degrade African Americans and, long before Trump’s rise, wearing costumes belittling Latinos as inferior. 

In a recent video, Garden Grove teenagers sang a pro-Adolf Hitler marching song. Newport Harbor High School kids were caught in March proudly playing an alcohol drinking game involving the display of a swastika, arguably the most un-American symbol in history. Not long ago, Huntington Beach attorney Matt McLaughlin advocated the passing of the “Sodomite Suppression Act,” proposed legislation that would require the state to put a bullet in the heads of all gay citizens. 

In that aftermath, homosexuality-obsessed white supremacist Samuel Woodward, who carried fascist symbols on his iPhone, lured 19-year-old college student Blaze Bernstein to an inland-OC park in January 2018. Investigators believe Woodward considered himself a soldier in the Atomwaffen Division, which sees an impending race war. Gay, Jewish and immensely talented, Bernstein was found buried in a shallow grave; he’d been stabbed more than 20 times. Woodward now faces murder charges.

Laube is a member of a combat-ready white-supremacist outfit called Rise Above Movement (RAM), which espouses anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and Nazi dogma about protecting caucasians under the ruse they’re “defending America.” According to an FBI report, he worked with other like-minded activists to incite violence against brown-skinned individuals, practiced hand-to-hand combat and produced “white unity” videos. At the aformementioned Make America Great Again (MAGA) rally at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach, he gave the “heil Hitler” salute. His group also traveled across the country to participate in the white nationalist’s 2017 melee in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But in People v. Aguilar, which played out in West Court near Little Saigon last week, prosecutor Nikaien repeatedly hailed Laube in absentia as an innocent, nonviolent “victim.” She told jurors he’d come to the rally merely to express political support for Trump and found himself under attack for exercising his constitutional right of free expression. Video shows his group chanted at Aguilar and her group, “Fuck you, bitch,” “Pussy” and “Build that Wall.” They also waved a sign proclaiming, “Da Goyim Know,” referring to a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory that there’s an international Jewish plot to control the world. 

“Mr. Laube did absolutely nothing [wrong],” Nikaien told jurors in shamelessly deceitful assertions. “He didn’t even try to use force.”

Illustration by Mark Dancey

Such misinformation collides with perceptions that courtrooms are forums for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Sometimes, unfortunately, they are stages for carefully concocted fantasies. If Aguilar proved anything, it’s the lengths win-at-all-costs prosecutors in Orange County will go to manufacture a fake reality for juries. 

To pull off her charade, the prosecutor needed a willing co-conspirator—which she found in Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Glazier. In pretrial rulings, Glazier granted Nikaien her wish list of facts she did not want jurors to learn. Included in the off-limits information were Laube’s white-supremacist beliefs, membership in RAM, use of “heil Hitler” salutes, his criminal record, his beating of Tristan in the face with his fist in front of Aguilar, and even his lack of desire to see her prosecuted for the slaps.

“The fact that the victim is a white supremacist or a member of RAM is irrelevant to whether the defendant committed the charged crime,” Nikaien successfully argued. “The immense prejudicial effect of admitting such evidence would inappropriately pollute the jury’s assessment of the evidence in this case.” 

Meanwhile, the prosecutor saw nothing prejudicial about trashing Aguilar’s character as a lawless, left-wing villain. She repeatedly told jurors the defendant had ties to, in her belief, a trouble-making Antifa that opposes Trump’s policies. More than half a dozen times, Nikaien displayed an enlarged photograph of Aguilar wearing that group’s black garb with a caption reading, “GUILTY.” She added, “She’s dressed like a robber,” which was ironic given that Laube is the only one with a robbery arrest on his rap sheet.

Other shenanigans during the trial included the prosecutor advising jurors during her closing argument to “consider all the circumstances known to the defendant” at the time of the slaps as displayed in the courtroom on an aired video of the rally. What she didn’t tell the panel was that Glazier, a former prosecutor, had allowed her to edit out portions that didn’t suit her narrative, including Laube’s salute and attack on Tristan, as well as footage showing the neo-Nazis had left other MAGA protesters to aggressively challenge Antifa members from the rear. Having achieved that feat, the prosecutor then argued, “[The defense is] trying to fool you [about what happened]. Don’t fall for it.”

What made the actions of the prosecutor and judge more egregious is that it was plainly visible that defense counsel, James Segall-Gutierrez, had little criminal law experience. Segall-Gutierrez tried to rehabilitate the reputation of his “young idealist” client, who was at the time of the rally studying to become a social worker in Sacramento and felt the need to protest Trump’s attacks on Mexican Americans.

“She was there resisting fascism, that xenophobia, that hate,” Segall-Gutierrez told jurors. “She’s just standing there, dancing with her friends and holding up an Antifa flag. They are yelling at her. She flips them off. They’re yelling, “Fuck you, bitch!” She sees [Laube’s] right hand coming at her. She smacked him in the face. They were amused.” 

Getting the last turn to speak, Nikaien said, “[Antifa thinks] all Trump supporters are racists, so ‘we have a right to use violence.’ Violence in politics is not righteous. It’s cowardly. . . . Words, no matter how offensive, are not enough to justify battery.”

Whether the jury, which was comprised mostly of minorities, bought the prosecutor’s entire presentation isn’t known. But after less than 40 minutes of deliberation, they did accept Nikaien’s proposition that Aguilar had committed a misdemeanor. Glazier sentenced her to 20 days in jail, a term that will be suspended if she completes Caltrans roadside chores for 10 days.

Laube had pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to the Huntington Beach fight, but U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney tossed the case in June, opining that the FBI’s use of the Anti-Riot Act of 1968 to arrest him was unconstitutional.