An East Palo Alto, California man, who allegedly targeted Indian American women in a series of chain snatchings earlier this year, has been charged with 14 counts of felony robbery charges and 14 misdemeanor hate crimes.

Lathan Johnson was arrested Aug. 15 by the Milpitas Police Department. He is currently being held in the Santa Clara County Main Jail, without bail. Johnson has also been charged with one felony count of assault likely to produce great bodily injury.

Johnson was scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 4 morning. However, the defendant did not apear in court, saying he was feeling unwell and had not taken his medication. His arraignment was rescheduled for Nov. 4 at 1:30 p.m.

Two Month Robbery Spree

Each felony robbery charge carries a sentencing range of 2 to 5 years. Each hate crime charge carries a sentencing range of 1-3 years, according to charging documents forwarded to India Currents by the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office. Johnson is facing about 63 years of incarceration.

In a two-month spree, Johnson targeted women wearing traditional South Asian dress and tore necklaces off their necks. He then sped away in a getaway car. The suspect allegedly injured several of the women, who ranged in age from 50 to 73.

Woman Assaulted

In one particularly heinous attack, the victim was walking with her husband down a Milpitas street when Johnson approached and asked for directions. He then walked up behind them and pushed the woman to the ground and punched her husband in the face and then pushed him to the ground.

Johnson ripped a thousand-dollar necklace off the woman’s neck and jumped into a car and sped away. The woman suffered a broken wrist, and her husband was treated for a possible broken nose, according to the DA’s office. 

Bias Incident

Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, confirmed to India Currents that all the targets were Indian American women wearing sarees, bindis, and other Indian garb. He said it was the first time that chain snatchings — which have become increasingly common in the San Francisco Bay Area — were being charged as a hate crime.

“There is definitely an element of bias involved: all of the victims belonged to a specific ethnic group,” said Kalra.

Climate Of Fear

Chain snatchings have created a climate of fear in the Indian American community, Kalra noted. Women are afraid to step outside with their finery because of fear of being attacked, he said, noting comments made by his elderly mother and his wife.

“It is very important that Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is addressing this issue in this manner,” he said.

HAF is developing an advisory on chain snatchings. “Women should not have to hide their Indian identity. But they should remain vigilant, and call police right away if they are targeted, even if they are just visiting the US or are undocumented,” said Kalra.

“I say to our South Asian community that anyone who targets and attacks you will be arrested and treated with the utmost severity under our law,” said Rosen in a press statement. “Santa Clara County’s precious diversity is our strength, our superpower – not a criminal opportunity.”

The estimated worth of the stolen jewelry is about $35,000, according to the DA’s office.

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Sunita Sohrabji is the Health Editor at Ethnic Media Services.