The gasps and cries of “oh my God” and “sick” were so loud, as it became clear Judge Syda Cogliati was about to approve the placement of sexually violent predator Michael Cheek in Bonny Doon, the Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge had to warn the public about decorum.
“Anyone who is talking can leave the courtroom now,” she said through her facemask reading YOUR HONOR.
One woman exited promptly. Another began convulsing as if she were about to throw up.
“Be quiet in here or step outside,” a bailiff admonished.
She brought herself under control, choosing to remain.
Monday’s result was not the end hoped for by Santa Cruz Mountains residents in the battle of whether or not a man who raped multiple people in the 1980s, including a teen, could take up residence on Wild Iris Lane.
“It appears the placement is appropriate,” Cogliati said, as she ordered a series of beefed-up security measures to counteract the poor telecommunications services and less-than-desirable law enforcement response times in the area.
Those included a generator that fires up automatically during power blackouts, a satellite phone for the property, a GPS signal booster, a 150-foot-diameter virtual perimeter “dome,” additional physical fencing, a four-camera video surveillance system, bright lighting and a one-on-one, around-the-clock security worker until the court says otherwise.
Joe Brennan, a 41-year-old father of six who lives next door, was hunched forward with his left hand rubbing his temples, his glasses pushed upon his forehead.
“S***, now I have to move,” he says he was thinking at that moment. “This is a nightmare … Who’s going to want to live in my house?”
He said he wondered about how he would break the news to his wife.
In the hallway, afterward, Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers tried to explain to Bonny Doon residents why the court might have paved the way for an officially-designated violent sex criminal to become the newest addition to the neighborhood.
“I’m as frustrated as you are,” he told one distraught local.
Byers said the judge agreed to let the DA’s office try to get the 6th District Court of Appeal to take up the case.
Mike Geluardi, the president of the Bonny Doon School Board who lives near the site, was deflated.
“The court set an incredibly low bar by saying the alternative is releasing him as a transient,” he said, referring to offenders’ rights case law brought up during the hearing by the judge. “There’s got to be some other type of solution, like a halfway house, that respects Mr. Cheek’s rights.”
And, he said, the company that organized his placement stands to benefit significantly by getting the patient out of the state hospital and into the community.
A $12 million contract between the Department of State Hospitals (DSH) and Liberty Healthcare of California, Inc., obtained by the Press Banner, suggests just how valuable moving someone like Cheek to outpatient status might be for the private company.
According to the agreement, effective July 2018-June 2020, pre-placement patients cost the state $2,154.21 monthly, or $25,850.52 for the year.
However, for an outpatient assigned a single employee providing enhanced supervision, Liberty charged $40,571.71 a month in “add on” costs, or $486,860.52 if this monitoring continued for the entire year.
It’s unclear how contract terms may have changed under the most recent agreement, or how Cheek’s highly-curated treatment plan would compare.
What is clear, however, is just how vigorously the company has been working to pressure the state on the issue of releasing sex offenders.
According to the California State Lobbying Search database, Liberty Healthcare Corp. has spent $79,022.90 lobbying in Sacramento in 2021—so far—via Capitol Advocacy, LLC, and Kate Bell Strategies.
The most recent disclosure, filed Oct. 26, 2021, reveals a $15,750 payment for influence work that included lobbying the DSH and the Legislature about the Conditional Release Program—the very one through which Cheek is to be (partially) freed.
While Santa Cruz County had already been verified as an appropriate place for Cheek to live, and his release had been approved, too, the District Attorney’s office contended Wild Iris Lane was rife with a whole host of problems that should rule it out as an option.
Chief among these was the ability to effectively monitor the 78-year-old in the face of frequent and lengthy PG&E outages, wildfire and landslide-related evacuation orders and the presence of children in the area.
Public defender Stephen J. Prekoski said the gambit of filing official paperwork with state authorities to set up a homeschool near the proposed residence—at the 11th hour—wasn’t a good enough reason to deny the move.
“I think it’s obvious what’s going on here,” he said. “You get this NIMBY attitude.”
In fact, Prekoski argued, since all of Cheek’s victims were adults, except for one, the buffer requirement between a predator’s conditional release home and a nearby school shouldn’t even apply.
Cogliati disagreed, but ultimately rejected the validity of the school anyway, finding it was formalized as a tactic to keep Cheek out. And a play structure in the area shouldn’t count as a park, she decided.
“Evidence establishes there was no school or park,” she said.
The judge credited the fact she even considered these objections to the vast outpouring of public comment provided in recent months.
That outcry was largely spearheaded by Geluardi, who successfully urged the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to symbolically oppose any future placements of Sexually Violent Predators in the county.
Geluardi says Liberty has seen three owners of proposed conditional release sites withdraw from leases, and four Liberty patient-placement applications have been rejected by courts.
“I don’t know what their accounting sheet looks like, but it doesn’t seem to be going well,” he said, adding the community is being forced to trust Cheek will stick with the program. “What Liberty Healthcare is calling ‘supervision’ is going to be a GPS ankle bracelet that does not work off of the property where he’s housed.”
Byers says he’s planning to ask the 6th District to extend the judgment-stay beyond two weeks, as he continues to fight the efforts of Liberty to move Cheek to Bonny Doon.
“They’re a business,” he said. “They’ve been hired to place people.”