Avowed Racist Accused of Killing Middle Eastern Man Escapes Hate Crime Charges
Two very different tattoos on two different men begin to tell the story of a grisly murder in Southern California on Sept. 8. That night, a 22-year-old Iranian American man was stabbed to death in what his family calls a hate crime and what prosecutors say is a murder that can’t be pinned to racist motives.
The Farsi script tattoo on Shayan Mazroei’s forearm reads, “eshgh”—that means “love.”
The tattoo along the collar of Craig Tanber, the 37-year-old avowed white supremacist standing trial for the murder, speaks to a deep hatred. It reads, “PEN1,” short for "Public Enemy Number One." PEN1 is a Huntington Beach, California–based white supremacist gang that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “a hybrid racist skinhead street group and prison gang.”
The bare details laid out by local prosecutors are this: There was a verbal argument outside Patsy’s Irish Pub in Laguna Niguel, before Tanber stabbed Mazroei in the chest repeatedly. Mazroei later died at a hospital. Tanber fled to a motel, where he was arrested days later.
Ironically, both men may have considered themselves Aryans—just one of the unusual conflicts and growing pains the Iranian American community faces in Southern California, even after decades of establishing a foothold as an affluent and well-educated group.
For Mazroei’s parents and loved ones, it seems obvious: When an avowed white supremacist stabbed and killed their son, an Iranian American with dark features, it was a hate crime.
For the prosecutor digging into the case, the matter is less clear.
Murders are rare in South Orange County.
Those who live far away from the quiet, family-oriented California area may have gotten a different impression through pop culture, considering it’s the setting of the obnoxious arguments of its reality-television stars, from the squawking nouveau riche housewives of Coto de Caza to Laguna Beach’s feisty Kristin Cavallari.
Yet, the real dramas of South Orange County tend to be smaller than the semi-scripted captivations of the small screen. All told, Orange County may best be described as a comfortably bland expanse between Los Angeles and San Diego, master-planned for easy living. It's home to Disneyland. From strip malls to outdoor shopping “experiences” like the Irvine Spectrum and Fashion Island, it’s a place that caters to consumers, and there are many consumers here. This is a rich place: The clean streets say it; the high property values say it; the good schools say it. Which may be why new subdivisions constantly crop up in varying shades of beige as developers pave McMansions into every hillside and valley that may have once been home to the orange groves that helped this area earn its name. With about 235,000 residents, the city of Irvine was named the safest city in America in 2014—a repeat of its 2013 win—based on the FBI’s violent-crime stats.
Countywide, the number of hate crimes dropped to 40 in 2014, down from 49 the previous year, according to the Orange County Human Relations Council, a private nonprofit. Of those crimes, just three were reported by Muslims, Arabs, or Middle Eastern people. African Americans have consistently been the most frequent target of hate crimes in Orange County, reporting 11 such incidents in 2014.
Prosecutor Larry Yellin says he would prosecute the Mazroei murder as a hate crime if he could, but the evidence in the ongoing investigation just isn’t there yet.
“As far as a hate crime it’s very speculative. I don’t have actual evidence; I have anecdotal things,” Yellin told TakePart in a recent interview. One of those anecdotes: that night, it was talk of Mazroei's Farsi language tattoo that sparked the conflict. “I certainly understand the family’s pain and outrage at the suspects, but I have to build a case on provable evidence.”
A petition asking Yellin to prosecute the murder as a hate crime has gained thousands of signatures and details one of the things the local Iranian American community is upset about: the actions of a woman who was there that night, Elizabeth Thornberg.
Patsy’s patron George Hansle, a friend of Mazroei's, later told local television that Thornberg made racist comments, telling Hansle after Mazroei walked by that she didn't “like that guy.” When Hansle asked her to clarify, Thornberg allegedly said, “That Iranian—.” Hansle cuts himself short without completing the epithet, saying, “I don’t want to use the word that she said.”
Soon after those words, Tanber and Mazroei confronted each other outside the strip-mall watering hole—and when Mazroei came back inside, he was bleeding from chest wounds. Thornberg fled with Tanber, and she hasn’t been charged with any crime.
Even if someone is a white supremacist with a violent past, as Tanber is, what counts in this trial is what can be proved to have happened that night, including who said what in the moments before Tanber allegedly attacked Mazroei, Yellin said.
Getting that evidence straightened out is paramount in a trial like Tanber’s, when just one uncertain juror can derail a guilty verdict, said Brian Levin, an expert witness who has testified in Orange County hate crime cases and a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino.
“It’s difficult to get convictions in cases that aren’t explicit—and even in some explicit cases it’s really hard to get convictions,” Levin told TakePart. “If you have someone up for murder, it might benefit a prosecutor to keep the case simple.”
Prosecuting as a hate crime comes in handy in the case of lesser offenses, which can go from misdemeanors to felonies when a hate crime comes into play. In Orange County, “if they can charge a hate crime, they generally like to do it,” Levin said, noting that the county has been more aggressive than others in pursuing hate crimes.
Regardless, if Tanber is found guilty, his long history of crime means he would be sentenced to a minimum of 76 years in prison, so he is effectively looking at a life sentence for Mazroei’s murder.
Yet, there is another cost to not bringing hate crime charges.
“There’s something about vindication of victims and recognition of communal harm,” Levin said.
That can be particularly useful in a community that wouldn’t know a hate crime if it saw one.
Iranians have been repatriating to the United States for decades, with many seeking freedoms—along with the academic and economic opportunities unavailable to them in Iran—following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when a theocracy took the place of a secular monarchy. In recent decades, as development has brought more homes to the good schools in South Orange County, the area has seen an influx of model minorities—minorities, including Iranian Americans (who sometimes refer to themselves as Persians), who exceed national averages for socioeconomic success.
As an Iranian American who grew up in South Orange County—even without census numbers that reflect a surge in the number of Middle Eastern people in the area—I would submit that the writing is literally on the wall. I notice Farsi script popping up in shop windows and on signs in the area. There is obvious growth in the number of specialty grocery stores that boast fresh-baked sangak bread serving the community. Not far from Patsy’s, where Mazroei was stabbed, there’s a 7-Eleven where Slurpees were "buy one, get one free" this week—but there’s also the Oak Tree Village shopping center, where one sign touts music lessons for children in Farsi. The suite is upstairs from a sprawling Persian grocer, where everything from samovars to massive sacks of basmati rice can be purchased—and soccer moms regularly cajole the kebab vendor into serving tahdig, the crispy rice Persians love to eat with saffron-scented stews. There has also been a surge in the number of homes that some neighbors have pejoratively called “Persian palaces”—homes where the owners’ taste in Roman columns and vast expanses of marble can appear flashy (think bling-ridden shows like Shahs of Sunset).
Resident Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed volunteers for a bunch of groups interested in the advancement of Iranian Americans: working on petition drives around the nuclear deal and civics education for the National Iranian American Council, helping young professionals find mentorship through the Iranian American Women Foundation, and raising awareness around racial justice issues with SWANA-LA, a group for Southwest Asians and North Africans.
It’s this work that puts her in touch with a community that doesn’t always seem to be in touch with its own racial identity, which is complicated by one word: Aryan.
Racist skinhead criminal syndicates surely see it differently, but Iranian Americans believe themselves to be not only whites but the original Aryans—the term is Sanskrit and denoted Indo-European people well before Hitler co-opted it. In the U.S., people of Iranian descent have long been counted as part of the white population in the census—something else Sadeghi-Movahed has been trying change with her volunteer work.
“It’s really antiquated and unfortunate,” said Sadeghi-Movahed. “A lot of us think we’re still white, so when these things happen, it’s not taken seriously. They just blow it off, or they think that’s just the way people act toward Iranians.”
In short, part of the problem is that Iranian Americans don’t always understand their own racial politics, don’t understand themselves to be minorities, don’t know their rights, and too often don’t report racist crimes.
That’s part of why the National Iranian American Council has been pushing for Mazroei’s murder to be investigated as a hate crime, according to National Outreach Director Elham Khatami.
“This is the type of incident that makes young Iranian Americans, who love this country and relish its freedoms, question their place in the United States. It’s the type of situation that creates an environment of insecurity and makes young Iranian Americans fearful for their safety and for the safety of their friends and family,” Khatami said.
In the blistering heat of a recent Sunday afternoon, two mourners huddle in the shade of a magnolia tree near Mazroei’s fresh grave, every inch of which is covered with wilting flowers. A photo of him is set up where the headstone will go, the paper flapping in the hot breeze.
The middle-aged couple weeps openly as they mourn Mazroei. They are standing with a giant, furry dog named Simba. This dog belonged to Mazroei, and it’s the first time the dog has been to the cemetery.
“I keep expecting him to pop out of one of the upstairs rooms and come kiss me hello,” the woman says of the Mazroei’s family home, which is full of flowers and photos of the young man but is empty in a way too large to describe.
The couple don’t share their names, identifying themselves as close family friends of Mazroei’s parents who are aiding the family’s push to see this murder recognized as a hate crime.
They speak of a new fear that is growing in their community.
“If they can do this to a harmless kid and it isn’t a hate crime, what else can they do to our children and our families?” the man asks as the woman paces around the grave with Simba.
“This isn’t going to be the last one,” the man says grimly.