Local crime victims and witnesses who displayed courage in the face of danger were honored on Wednesday by the San Diego County District Attorneys in its annual “Citizens of Courage Awards”, held during National Crime Victims Rights Week.
The virtual awards ceremony honored this year’s good samaritans. According to San Diego County DA Summer Stephan, National Crime Victims Rights Week is a tradition of 32 years.
“Today we keep that tradition alive and honor all victims as survivors of crime,” Stephan said.
Eddie Michel, a facilities supervisor at San Diego City College, received the first award for intervening when a man attempted to sexually assault a 22-year-old woman at the San Diego City College Campus.
“When I first got this case, the first thing I thought was this is a nightmare. This is a nightmare in broad daylight,” Deputy DA Flavio Nominati said.
Michel heard the young woman scream for help and came to her aid to find the assailant standing above the victim, who was punched and kneed in the face. After Michel intervened and began reaching for his cellphone to call the police, the attacker ran off but was apprehended nearby.
Michel said in a recorded interview played during the ceremony, "I was glad I was there that day and just happened to be the one.''
“Without Eddie, who was prepared, as a professional witness, he's had no experience in court whatsoever. We would not have been able to achieve this. I think we all know what would have happened if he wouldn't interfere because no one would have interfered. And she would have been living with that the rest of her life,” Nominati said.
The defendant was convicted and sentenced to seven years to life in prison.
The victim of a drunk driving collision was honored for his work as speaker on public policy regarding the dangers of DUI driving.
Bruce Mezan was riding his motorcycle one early morning when he was hit by a drunken driver and sustained several serious injuries, which necessitated the amputation of his right foot. According to Deputy DA Mike Still, witnesses at the intersection said Bruce and his motorcycle flew about 10 feet in the air and landed on the corner,
Many of his speaking engagements include events at schools, in which he said he tries to reach out to young people who are around the age of the 24- year-old who struck him.
“One of the first things that Bruce said to me was, Mike, I want to turn this into a good thing. I don't want to be a victim. I want to do something with what happened to me right off the bat,” Still said.
Mezan said feels “compelled to do this”. According to Still, Mezan saw the tragedy that happened to him, and the tragedy of the young man with no criminal record, who made the decision to drink and drive.
“I want them to understand that it's not that hard for a regular person to find themselves in the position that the young man who struck me is in,'' Mezan said.
The DA’s office also honored Rosa Martinez, a witness of a 2019 mass shooting inside an Otay Mesa Church’s Chicken restaurant. The shooting left one employee dead and two others wounded by gunfire.
Martinez made a stop at the eatery before dropping her daughter off at soccer practice. Her teenage daughter was inside the restaurant getting food when the shooter
“I thought I had lost her,'' Martinez said in a video. "And then (the shooter) walked out like he didn't do anything.''
The DA's office said Martinez, who has some medical training, ran into the restaurant to assist the shooting victims, then called 911.
Albert Lee Blake waited in line behind a 12-year-old girl, waited until she was done ordering and stepped aside, stepped up, and began shooting at all of the Church’s Chicken Employees after he was refused service for using a counterfeit bill, according to Deputy DA Mary Loeb.
Blake was convicted of attempted murder and other charges and sentenced last year to 146 years to life in state prison.
Martinez said, "I was scared. I was nervous, especially to be in the same courtroom as he was. But it was something that I felt I had to do".
Martinez said she testified after thinking of the mother of the fatal victim, Maribel Ibanez.
“I just feel like as a mom, she did lose her child and I thought I (lost mine.) I feel like it was for us to put him behind bars and at least give her mom a little bit of justice,'' Martinez said.
The final Citizens of Courage was given to Oscar Stewart, a congregant present during the 2019 shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, for rushing at the gunman just after the shooter opened fire.
Stewart heard the gunfire ring out in the synagogue's foyer, which led to the death of 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye and injuries to three others, including the synagogue's rabbi and an 8-year-old girl.
According to prosecutors, Stewart, who was unarmed, ran toward the gunman, John T. Earnest, began to reload his weapon and began screaming at him in order to distract him.
Earnest ran from the synagogue while Stewart and others chased him to his car. Authorities apprehended Earnest two miles away from the synagogue. He later pled guilty in parallel state and federal prosecutions and received life sentences in both cases.
“Things happen in a flash, and you just react,'' Stewart said. "You never know how you're going to react, and I like to say maybe next time this happens —God forbid — I'll do the same thing."