San Jose firebomber gets 8-year sentence

A 19-year-old carpet layer who spearheaded a firebomb attack on the San Jose home of a Superior Court judge has been sentenced to eight years and eight months in state prison.

Victor Quintin Podbreger pleaded guilty in January to lobbing a Molotov cocktail through a window of Judge Jack Komar's home in the Willow Glen area Aug. 30, 1999 with two underage friends. Podbreger incorrectly believed that Komar is Jewish.

San Mateo Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach sentenced Podbreger Tuesday. Santa Clara County judges had all recused themselves since Komar is the Santa Clara County presiding judge.

The most incriminating piece of evidence was a videotape that Podbreger had made of the skinhead party that preceded the attack, according to Santa Clara District Attorney Karen Sinunu. In the video, the young men listen to loud punk-rock music, drink, smoke marijuana and ad-lib vulgar lyrics that deride Jews and blacks. They also can be clearly heard proposing and then discarding ideas for attacking Jews. The tape was made using equipment stolen from a neighbor, she added.

"We also confiscated knives and guns from these guys," said Sinunu. "These people were hateful and dangerous."

Before he entered a guilty plea, Podbreger had faced a maximum of 14 years. He will get credit for the year he has already served, but because of the severity of the charges, state law demands that he serve 80 percent of his sentence behind bars.

While Sinunu would have "liked to see him go to prison for 14 years," she is satisfied with the sentence.

Podbreger's defense attorney, Allen Schwartz, said, "He'll do a good seven years.

"He's very sad. He has a wife and a little baby, born while he was in jail."

Schwartz acknowledged that as a Jew, "it was not easy" to represent Podbreger, a skinhead.

"He deserves a defense like everybody else," Schwartz said.

Even those who applaud the sentence say odds are against Podbreger's gaining enlightenment in prison, where ethnic lines are drawn between opposing gangs.

It is more likely than not that Podbreger, who has festooned himself with tattoos of swastikas and Vikings, will line up with one of the skinhead gangs that have proliferated in the state's penal institutions.

"We need to do a radical rethinking of how we punish the perpetrators of hate crimes," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific region.

Still, he said, he "feels comfortable" with the thoroughness of the proceedings and the length of the sentence.

The ADL drafted the model for the additional hate-crime penalty that was used in determining the sentence, he said.

The crime startled the Jewish community, whose nerves were already raw from the firebombing of three Sacramento-area synagogues two months earlier.

The homemade explosive singed the outside of the home but did little damage, and no one was hurt.

One of the youths told police Podbreger picked Komar as a target because he drove a Mercedes and appeared to be Jewish.

Komar, who was born to a Jewish family, later converted to the Roman Catholic faith, Schwartz said.

When one of the perpetrators called 911 to report the crime, police traced the call and arrested Podbreger and two 17-year-old cohorts, all San Jose residents.

One of them was sentenced in December to 10 months at the Santa Clara County boys' ranch in Morgan Hill.

The other minor was found guilty of arson and possession of a destructive device. In November, he was sentenced to serve time at the California Youth Authority, where he could remain until he is 25.

Police investigating the crime found hate literature at the rented home Podbreger shared with friends.

Two of the youths, using school computers, had contacted neo-Nazi organizations.

According to Sinunu, Santa Clara County has the highest conviction rate in the state for perpetrators of hate crimes.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.