Man who attacked journalist at chaotic spa protest sentenced to probation

A 30-year-old man who struck a journalist with a baton during a protest over transgender rights outside of a Koreatown spa last year was sentenced to probation Thursday.

Aaron Kareem Simmons, 30, pleaded no contest to one count of assault with a deadly weapon at a court hearing in downtown Los Angeles. Under a plea deal Simmons struck with prosecutors, Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell placed Simmons on three years’ probation. Simmons must also undergo anger management and stay away from the man he attacked.

Video of the July 3 protest outside the Wi Spa showed Simmons walk up behind Rocky Romano — a freelance journalist who was wearing a helmet and had the word “PRESS” in bold lettering across his back — and smash him over the head with a “wooden lead baton,” according to a criminal complaint. Last year, Romano told The Times his vision blurred for about a minute after he was hit and he believed he suffered a minor concussion.

Despite the video, Simmons’ attorney, R.J. Manuelian, said he did not believe the prosecution’s case was “extremely persuasive” and that he would seek to have the case expunged from Simmons’ record once he completes the terms of his probation.

Simmons was involved in a number of protests last year between far-right and left-wing groups that devolved into street brawls.

A report was made to Beverly Hills police accusing Simmons of beating up a counter-protester during a rally supporting President Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. Torrance police also received a report accusing Simmons of attacking prominent left-wing activist Chad Loder, who frequently posts information about right-wing violence in Southern California.

Neither police department immediately responded Thursday to questions about the status of those cases. Previously, both agencies have said the investigations into the alleged attacks were ongoing and that the cases had not been presented to prosecutors for possible charges.

Manuelian said he believed prosecutors would not have agreed to the plea deal if the allegations in the two cases had merit.

Romano did not appear in court Thursday. In a victim impact statement he filed in court and shared with The Times, he said he was conflicted about the plea deal and worries he would have been killed or badly injured if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet. He also revived complaints that police were lenient with protesters who supported Trump or opposed vaccine mandates, while arresting hundreds during demonstrations supporting left-wing causes throughout the year.

“I am not sure what the correct punishment should have been, but I do believe that this could send the wrong message to Simmons and his group of far-right extremists as well as the activist and journalist communities,” Simmons wrote. “It is hard to believe that he will be at the next event I cover, but one thing is for sure, I will be wearing my helmet.”

The Wi Spa was the scene of multiple demonstrations last year after a customer took to social media to raise concerns about an individual with male genitalia using the women’s section of the spa in June. The video went viral.

Protesters who objected to the spa’s policy allowing transgender women to use its women’s facilities, which is in line with California law, clashed outside the spa with counter-protesters who said they were there to defend transgender rights several times.

The transgender woman at the center of the controversy was charged with multiple counts of indecent exposure in September.

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