Prosecutors pursue assault charge against man in brazen Santa Rosa stabbing

A man accused of stabbing a woman outside her Santa Rosa home last week was charged Tuesday with felony assault after prosecutors opted not to pursue an attempted murder case.

The tattoos covering the face and forearms of suspect Jesse James Graham, 40, were clearly visible from the courtroom gallery, where his mother was seated.

Graham was arrested a day after the Nov. 20 attack on suspicion of attempted murder. But Kathleen Pozzi, the county’s lead public defender who represented Graham on Tuesday, said prosecutors likely did not have confidence they could convict Graham on the more serious offense based on the investigation findings.

Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite set Graham’s bail at $500,000, following a request from Deputy District Attorney Jane Murray to not be lenient in the matter, citing the heinous nature of the crime.

The victim, a 50-year-old woman, had to undergo surgery because of her wounds, Murray said. She was stabbed shortly before midnight at the doorstep of her Jennings Avenue apartment after returning home from a shift at Sutter Hospital.

“It was unprovoked and highly violent,” Murray said.

Speaking after the hearing, Pozzi said she agreed the woman was the victim of a “very serious attack” but questioned whether Santa Rosa police investigators properly identified the suspect, whom they said wore a mask.

She also worried that Graham’s appearance, seen in a photograph released by the department following his arrest, could influence people’s perception of him.

Graham’s mother declined to comment following the arraignment. Pozzi described her son as a Sonoma County native who was a musician at some point and could play “almost any instrument.” His tattoos were a part of his showmanship during performances, she said. She could not offer any additional details on his work history.

His appearance made him a conspicuous figure in the neighborhood of his mother’s home at the Jennings Court Apartments, a senior housing facility located next to the apartment complex where the woman was stabbed. Graham often visited his mother, said Mary McMullin, the senior vice president of Covia, which manages the housing facility.

He was arrested near the Jennings Court Apartments as he accompanied his mother to her car. Police said Graham and the victim may have seen each other at the nearby Crunch Fitness gym, where both attended, and in the neighborhood, but they did not know each other.

Crunch Fitness neighbor Rodolfo Damian said he had seen Graham in the area only over the past six months. He was always alone and often talked to himself, Damian said. Once, about two months ago, Graham yelled at his neighbor about her barking dog, Damian said.

“I stepped in to help the woman and told him to talk to me,” he said. Graham eventually walked away.

Nabiel Hijazeen was one of several Crunch Fitness members who also recognized Graham on Wednesday morning, though the two had only exchanged an occasional “hello” while at the gym. Graham often dressed in exercise clothes at the gym, Hijazeen said, but he never saw Graham use any of the equipment.

“He just walked around,” Hijazeen said. “He didn’t bother anyone.”

A manager at the Arroyo Point Apartments told police he recognized Graham as the assailant captured in surveillance video of the incident, saying he had seen Graham in the area before and at a nearby gym, police said. Lyn Hikida, an apartment spokeswoman, confirmed Tuesday the stabbing happened there.

The video showed a man walk across a parking lot with a knife in his hand, following the victim as she approached her apartment door, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Josh Ludtke said last week. The man then stabbed her and ran north through the apartment complex.

Sonoma County law enforcement have made 18 contacts with Graham since 2011. The reports, primarily in or near downtown Santa Rosa, ranged from calls about a disturbance to suspicious activity, Ludtke said. In 2012, Graham spent one year in jail on a felony vandalism and burglary conviction.

He is scheduled to return to court Dec. 11.

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