Sympathy With the Devil

news_planesIs Richard Nash the county’s most dangerous sex offender or most misunderstood artist?

Finding an address can be the difference between freedom and incarceration William Muir, a maintenance employee at the Veterans Memorial Building for the past nine years, is an artist who attempts to spread the joy of art amongst his fellow veterans, especially those down on their luck. On Sept. 22, he met a homeless Vietnam veteran who had just been released from prison, a fellow by the name of Richard Nash. “I did not know him from Adam,” he says. “He’d been out of jail about a week. He told us that he had been incarcerated or institutionalized for 20 years. He didn’t even know what a cell phone was until now. He’s a savant genius.

He’s a well-learned man, though self-taught. By his admission he went to a school of art and design and they wouldn’t take him because he’d surpassed what they could teach him. Dude, I’ve got some samples of his work and it’s …” Here, Muir imitates a chorus of angels and lifts his hands. “It’s a combination of Dali, Bechtel, and Scientific Illustrated. It’s meticulous. It’s proof that he’s meticulous in everything he does.”

Nash is currently in Santa Cruz County Jail, awaiting a second trial on charges that he did not properly register his address. He is a convicted sex offender. In 1989, he was charged and pleaded guilty to six counts, serving nine years. The crime, according to Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Ross Taylor, “was just about the most vicious attack on a 4-year-old you can imagine. He abducted her, took her to a secluded location, raped her, and choked her to the point of unconsciousness. A California Highway Patrolman several hours later sees through the trees a red car, and it’s Nash sitting there with the girl beaten up, no pants on, and he’s drinking a beer.” After Nash served time, he was released to Atascadero State Hospital, an all-male maximum-security mental institution, where he was kept for another nine years.

Upon his release, he came to the Central Coast, eventually registering an address at an 80-parcel property. The property was vast enough to have two addresses, and Nash registered just one of the addresses. He was arrested in August 2007 for failing to properly register his address as a sex offender, and held for one year until his trial on Sept. 9 in Santa Cruz County. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict, and the case was declared a mistrial, with the judge dismissing the charges and setting Nash free. Now homeless, Nash registered as a transient, and spent his days bouncing between the steps of Prophet Elias, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Central Public Library. That’s when he met Muir at the Vets Hall, and even spent a night in Muir’s house. Muir has a 15-year-old son.

Muir has plenty of experience with homeless vets, some of them damaged and violent. He says Nash is the first person he ever took into his home. Asked what sets Nash apart, he says, “His attention to detail. His cleanliness. His fear of everything. There’s nothing he’s not afraid of. It’s sad. His sterility and his genius. He goes into encyclopedia mode, like when he talks about his ink, he goes back to the 13th century, and the plants it was derived from then. He can do that with a lot of things. But I’m wary of him, because of his background. But he doesn’t carry a bowie knife, he’s not talking about Vietnam, he’s not fanatical. That man lived through 20 years of an institution, and he’s the most peaceful, docile and intelligent person to have survived that who I’ve met.”

There were several people trying to help Nash back to his feet, and help him sell his art, or perhaps get another job in graphic design. In the meantime, the Santa Cruz County District Attorney re-filed the charges, as is legally allowed one time in the case of a felony mistrial, and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff had alerted the public that Nash was at large in the community. When the DA’s office successfully petitioned for a $100,000 arrest warrant to bring Nash in for a second trial, the media was alerted, and Nash’s face was posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The publicity caused Nash to move to Salinas, where his defense attorney says he was going to register his address within the five-day allowance, but he was arrested by the Monterey County Sheriff and transported back to Santa Cruz County Jail.

Lisa McCamey represented Nash in the first trial, and will do so again for the re-trail, with a preliminary hearing happening in Judge Samuel Stevens’ court on Oct. 14. She has issue with the manner in which Nash was treated by the sheriff and the press. “What I find most troubling is that it has been represented in a way to cause unnecessary fear in the community,” she says. “It is a simple registration violation. He was found not to be a danger. It’s irresponsible for the sheriff’s department to put a statement out there that’s not true. If, in fact, he’d done something new, I’d understand, or if he were wilfully trying to skirt the registration requirement, that would be a different matter. But everyone knew where he was.”

The sheriff, DA, and defense attorney all agree that Nash has committed no crime in Santa Cruz County since his release from prison in September. However, Sergeant Robin Mitchell of the Sheriff’s Department told the Sentinel before Nash’s arrest, “He does have a history of befriending families to have access to their children, so it’s not recommended that people befriend him.”news_mustang

As a sex offender with more than three strikes against him, the failure to register an address is itself treated as a felony offense, so the stakes are high for Nash. The DA’s office says the violation in 2007 was clear cut—“It is what it is,” Taylor says repeatedly—but the plot thickens on the point of the law’s spirit; the intent is to let the police and community know where the sex offender lives so they can be contacted and questioned if any new sex crime happens in the area. Nash may not have properly registered his address, but there’s an indication that the police knew exactly where he was anyway.

Three weeks before his arrest, Nash called 911 because his landlord—incidentally, the same person who told him which address to register for the property—had a mental breakdown and began assaulting the property’s caretaker. The police responded to Nash’s phone call and interviewed him before arresting the landlord, and he informed them of who he was and his status as a sex offender. They did not arrest Nash at that time, though they were now aware of his residence. “The police didn’t even know the true address of the place,” McCamey says. “The issue for the jury was technically he should have registered both addresses with the property, but he was only told of the one address.”

Taylor says contrary to knowing about Nash’s whereabouts, the police were misled and only came upon Nash’s misregistration by accident. He says Nash did register the actual address of the building he lived in with the DMV, so he knew about the multiple addresses. “Shortly after registering that address with the DMV,” he says, “He also registered another address in San Luis Obispo County. Because he’s so dangerous, the detectives put together a notification flier, to let the community be aware. Of course, they just don’t go to the freaking neighborhood and post it everywhere. Out of courtesy they go to Mr. Nash first. But they can’t find him and they can’t find the address. At the time they didn’t have reason to believe he falsely registered. Eventually they find he gave a different address at the DMV. If you were to drive from one address to the other, it’s a fifteen-minute drive.”

The other wrinkle in the case is the nine-year stay at Atascadero. While the registration law never goes away, there are degrees of dangerous sex offenders, and the DA and sheriff seem to consider Nash at the extreme end. Muir and Nash’s lawyers, however, wonder if Nash has paid his debt to society, and point to the release from the hospital as proof that he’s cleaned up his act.

In fact, Nash has approached civil lawyer Kate Wells, who is considering taking action on his behalf against Atascadero for wrongful imprisonment. “They held him for nine years with no grounds whatsoever,” she says. “In fact, when he finally got hold of an investigator in San Luis Obispo, he finally got a trial, and the day before trial, they cut him loose. It was so evident that they had no possible justification for holding him. He wants to go after the doctors who made up lies in order to keep him there.”

Wells believes the community has been fed more fear than is deserved. “He’s finally trying to get his life together, and this happens,” she says of the re-trial. “It’s almost like a vendetta. It’s really sad. They made out a $100,000 award for his arrest when he wasn’t hiding from anybody. I’m so dismayed at what’s going on. In my mind, either we rehabilitate these people when they’re in prison, or, if we don’t, it’s our failing. To ask people to jump through so many hoops that they’re never going to be able to have a normal life ever … and it’s fed by paranoia.”

Taylor agrees that the nine-year stay at Atascadero was unusual—the law proscribes 180 days—but hints at darker reasons for the lengthy incarceration. Pausing to look up and recite the exact language of the penal code applying to mental health incarceration, he reads, “The person shall be released from involuntary treatment after 180 days unless the public officer files a new petition for post-certification treatment on the grounds that the person has attempted or inflicted harm upon another during treatment.” He adds, “All the person has to do to be released is not threaten or harm other people. I have a stack of paper a foot high in my office related to that commitment. Is he dangerous? Hell yes, he’s dangerous.”

Asked to illuminate on the dangerous nature of Nash’s character, Taylor continues, “In 1973 he stabbed a 16-year-old girl in the neck in Oregon who spurned his sexual advances. The FBI interviewed him while he was awaiting sentencing, looking at various child abduction murders. That’s why the FBI was talking to him, and he admitted to molesting numerous other little girls along the way between these places. He described that he had been a pedophile his whole life. Talking about how masturbation just wasn’t enough. He’s also one of those guys who think they’re always coming on to him. Now he wants to say he is not and never was a pedophile. We beg to differ. The defense attorney thinks this is some kind of witch hunt but it’s not, and this guy has one of the most horrendous case histories I’ve ever seen.”

McCamey has a different take on the Oregon stabbing. “He did get into an altercation and stab someone. But there were no sexual allegations in that case. There’s a lot of false information and it took me a long time to figure out where the stab and rape happened, and it’s just not true at all. The DA knows it’s not true.” She says the conviction in 1989, while horrible, was the only case on his record of a sex offense. “He plead guilty to six counts, basically everything. He actually didn’t ask for a plea bargain or anything, and just threw himself on the mercy of the court.”

Muir, who seems surprised at his own level of interest in the case given that he hardly knows Nash, is concerned about the bigger questions of prosecuting a man for what he calls a technical violation. He hands me three pink Post-It notes, on which he has written down his thoughts about Nash’s legal troubles. They read, “Many criminals have been found guilty. Many criminals have never been caught. We should not make those caught a label for those who are still hiding the truth. Fear in humans is obvious. Why do we fuel it? Those who have been found ready for release into society should not be regarded as anything but healthy.”

He reads the note to me, then says, “He’s supposed to be going into business with his artwork. He is not pretending. This is real. We got him glasses, got him a cell phone, got him on the Internet. He was in a hotel room making art when they arrested him.”

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