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Santa Barbara Man Facing Battery, Hate-Crime Charges After State Street Assault

Richard Schiwietz was punched in the face after a man yelled homophobic slurs at him and a friend

Saul Lerma, left, and Richard Schiwietz were attacked by last week by a man who began by yelling homophobic names at them.
Saul Lerma, left, and Richard Schiwietz were attacked by last week by a man who began by yelling homophobic names at them. (Contributed photo)
Richard Schiwietz suffered a black eye and a concussion last week in an attack in downtown Santa Barbara that police are calling a hate crime.
Richard Schiwietz suffered a black eye and a concussion last week in an attack in downtown Santa Barbara that police are calling a hate crime.

A Santa Barbara man is facing battery and hate-crime charges after allegedly yelling obscenities at two men and assaulting one of them last week near the corner of Santa Barbara’s State and De la Guerra streets.

Richard Schiwietz and a close friend, Saul Lerma, were walking arm in arm downtown the evening of Oct. 4 when a man began yelling homophobic names, profanity and threats at them, according to the two men and Santa Barbara police.

The suspect, 54-year-old John Harlan Savala of Santa Barbara, allegedly flipped off the two men, who are gay, and punched Schiwietz in the head, causing him a concussion and a black eye.

Lerma was not physically hurt in the incident.

Schiwietz called 9-1-1 as he and Lerma chased their attacker to Cost Plus World Market at 610 State St., where Savala also allegedly harassed World Market staff.

Savala was arrested on charges of battery and hate crimes, said police Sgt. Riley Harwood, and was booked into Santa Barbara County Jail, with bail set at $50,000.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, Savala is being charged with battery and hate crimes.

Schiwietz and Lerma were on a walk they routinely take after dining out together along State Street when the incident occurred.

“Just such hatred being thrown out, and we were doing nothing — we were just walking down the street,” Schiwietz told Noozhawk.

John Harlan Savala Click to view larger
John Harlan Savala

Savala was very angry and screaming at them in their personal space and threatened to hit them, the men said.

“It was extremely alarming and frightening because it was happening so fast,” Schiwietz said.

Lerma said that immediately after the punch, he struck back at Savala and knocked the attacker’s hat off before they chased him from a distance through De La Guerra Plaza and down Anacapa Street before winding up at Cost Plus World Market.

Schiwietz said he declined medical assistance and that they eventually got in touch with the Pacific Pride Foundation, which provided them assistance and informational resources.

The foundation is an advocacy and education group with offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria that works to build and make visible LGBT communities, and prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS along the Central Coast.

“Almost every person I told this story to in the days after were incredulous” that such a violent hate crime had been committed in the middle of a place like downtown Santa Barbara, Schiwietz said.

While the men said they had been subject to verbal harassment before, it was their first experience with physical violence.

“We don’t see this kind of physical violence, especially in a public setting like State Street … with a lot of regularity — but it does happen,” said Colette Schabram, the executive director of the Pacific Pride Foundation.

On Oct. 18, the foundation is holding a solidarity event at De la Guerra Plaza, which will move down the block to the corner of State and De la Guerra streets, where the assault occurred.

The foundation will share the men’s story, and encourage attendees to step in and take action when they see harassment, bullying or violence.

“We’re going to start having conversations with the community about how they can step in and be an ally and an advocate and help,” Schabram said. “We’re really calling on Santa Barbara to come together and then be a part of the solution. And Tuesday is just the beginning of that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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