Over the objections of prosecutors and neighbors Monday, a Santa Cruz judge approved the placement of Michael Cheek, diagnosed as a sexually violent predator, in a Bonny Doon home. Assistant District Attorney Alexander Byers said he plans to appeal the ruling, and Judge Syda Cogliati agreed to delay the effective date of the decision to give him a chance to do so.
A Santa Cruz Superior Court judge Monday morning ruled that the placement of a man diagnosed as a sexually violent predator in Bonny Doon is appropriate and the company responsible for monitoring has shown that it will ensure community safety.
Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati then stayed the ruling — or stopped it temporarily — after Assistant District Attorney Alexander Byers requested she do so to give him an opportunity to appeal.
While tears and gasps of, “Oh god!” shot through the court after Cogliati deemed 70-year-old Michael Thomas Cheek’s placement in a Bonny Doon home appropriate, residents said they were grateful Byers will have an opportunity to appeal the decision.
Byers told Lookout that as soon as he gets back to his office, he’ll start preparing to file with the Sixth District Court of Appeal.
“I’m saddened by what happened to the community,” he said, standing outside the courtroom. “I know that they were joined together, to provide information to show that the placement was not appropriate. And from their perspective, those concerns were not heard.”
To address and respond to concerns presented by Bonny Doon community members, Cogliati made several amendments to the terms of Cheek’s release, physical additions to the home:
- A generator to ensure power during an outage
- A signal booster to improve phone service
- A GPS dome, which would restrict Cheek, from going further than 150 feet from the home
- Fully enclosed fencing around the home
- Video surveillance and enhanced sensor lighting
Cheek’s attorney, Stephen J. Prekoski, told Lookout he feels the judge made the right decision.
“We are very pleased,” he said. “He is a miracle of the rehabilitative process and, at some level, we have to believe in it.”
We are very pleased. He is a miracle of the rehabilitative process and, at some level, we have to believe in it.
He said if the Sixth District Court of Appeals denies Byers’ request, and if Cheek is released in a timely manner, he could be in the Bonny Doon home by the end of this month.
In that scenario, a meeting of attorneys and Liberty Healthcare staff would take place in the first two weeks of December. The case is scheduled to return to Cogliati’s courtroom on Jan. 10.
How did we get here?
Cheek was convicted of multiple rapes and an assault charge in the 1980s and was later diagnosed as a sexually violent predator. To receive that diagnosis, someone must be convicted of heinous, violent sex crimes and have a mental health disorder that reinforces that it is “likely that he or she will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior” again.
Following four decades of incarceration, Cheek was transferred to the Coalinga State Hospital where he has been receiving extensive inpatient services.
While he has never lived in Santa Cruz County, a court ruling declared his county of domicile, or permanent home, as Santa Cruz County. The only apparent connection he has to the county is a crime he was found guilty of: abducting a 21-year-old woman at gunpoint at Seabright Beach in 1981 and later raping her.
Staff from Liberty Healthcare, a Pennsylvania-based health care firm contracted by the state for relocation services of people diagnosed as sexually violent predators, say Cheek is compliant and receives extensive treatment.
The company plans to relocate Cheek to a three-bedroom, three-bath home owned by Kassandra Hinton, located on Wild Iris Lane.
Cheek’s attorney, Prekoski, told Lookout that Cheek has been rehabilitated and is a “superstar” for having reached this part of the release process.
It’s for that reason, Prekoski says, that a judge approved Cheek for conditional release from the hospital in 2019. Conditional release means Cheek can be relocated into a community but only under certain conditions such as GPS monitoring and limits to leaving his home for only work or health purposes, for example.
Bonny Doon residents don’t want to take that chance.
Opponents shocked by ruling
Bonny Doon residents, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff and prosecutors have expressed concern and presented significant issues such as the unreliable cellphone and wifi signals, frequent power outages and the proximity of children and teens living on the same street as the potential home.
As Cogliati read out her decision Monday morning, at least one person began crying and another individual appeared to begin to pretend they were going to vomit. A sheriff’s deputy told the individual to leave if they were going to continue and they stopped.
Tricia Proffitt, who lives on Wild Iris Lane, told Lookout she is concerned about not just her family’s safety but also the ways in which the challenges and isolation of living in Bonny Doon could negatively impact Cheek’s success. She’s lived there for 32 years.
“I am just shocked,” she said. “I appreciate that the judge is looking at his rights, having served his time but I think it is a gross mistake to place him in Bonny Doon or any rural part of the county. He needs to be where services are easily accessible.”
Proffitt’s neighbor, Joe Brennan, lives with his wife and six children next door to the proposed home for Cheek. He is also the head administrator of Wild Iris Private School, which has four full-time enrolled students and six part-time students and is run out of his home.
One of his daughters, a 14-year-old, walks a quarter mile to the bus stop past Cheek’s potential home every morning. Like most parts of Bonny Doon, he said there’s no cell phone service during that walk, so if his daughter needed help during that walk, she wouldn’t be able to call for help.
“I as a parent would be negligent to stay there and ask her to do that,” he told Lookout. “So we have to leave. I will leave.”
Before the hearing, Mike Geluardi, Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District board president, told Lookout he was hopeful about the ruling. Geluardi is a vocal opponent and organizer against Cheek’s placement in the neighborhood. Walking out of the courtroom after the hearing, he could barely muster a response about Cogliati’s decision.
“I’m extremely discouraged,” he told Lookout. “We have a system that sacrifices family neighborhoods and the wellbeing of teenage girls and families, to protect the rights of a sexually violent predator. They decided his rights were more important than our neighborhood.”
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said he was disappointed.
“This location is in a remote region of our county where response times are delayed, and cellular service is poor,” he said, in a statement. “Cheek’s only connection to our county is that he committed a vicious sexual assault in Santa Cruz.”
Cogliati’s rationale for the ruling
After the last hearing on Cheek’s placement in September, Cogliati said there were several concerns that needed to be addressed by Liberty Healthcare. She went through the concerns and the supplemental information Liberty Healthcare and the district attorney provided since the September hearing.
The first concern was about the existence and location of a school. If the potential home of an SVP is located within a quarter-mile of a school, it can no longer be considered an option.
Cogliati questioned the timeline of the registration of the school with the state’s Department of Education and the court’s order that Cheek be placed in Bonny Doon as being the community’s attempt to prevent his placement there.
She said that the school, Brennan’s Wild Iris Lane School, would not be a reason for her to deny his placement as any community could create a school to prevent SVP placements.
Additional concerns she addressed were how Liberty Healthcare would efficiently monitor Cheek, particularly during an outage, how to improve poor wifi and cellular service and distance to bus stops and a nearby trailhead. She said she was satisfied with the company’s proposals such as installing a signal booster for cellular service and a generator that would automatically turn on 30 seconds after an outage.
She reiterated that the hearing was not a time to discuss Cheek’s placement in the county generally, a decision that was made previously by another judge and that the district attorney’s office did not object to that prior ruling when it had a chance.
In addition, she said that after a certain period of time, if a sexually violent predator is not placed in a home after they have been granted conditional release, they could potentially be released into a community as a “transient.” And, because he has waited for an extended period, Cogliati said that Cheek has requested he be released into the community.
Cogliati said she believes that the community would be safer if he is placed in a controlled setting.