A test of ‘Bonny Doon Strong’: Why a ‘sexually violent predator’ should not be this community’s next battle

The house on Wild Iris Lane in Bonny Doon that Liberty Healthcare has recommended Michael Cheek be placed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As 30% of its population continues to either rebuild, mitigate damage or choose where else to go next, the state of California, via a private company called Liberty Healthcare, has dropped another bomb on the community of Bonny Doon. A Santa Cruz judge can bring sanity to the situation Tuesday, but the recommended placement illustrates that this is a system in need of overhaul.

The three-bedroom, three-bath, 2,482-square-foot house that Michael Cheek would live in on Wild Iris Lane could grace the glossy cover of Santa Cruz Mountains Living if there were such a publication.

It sits on an idyllic plot of Bonny Doon land, only hundreds of yards on one side from where fire encroached up Ice Cream Grade in one direction and up a hill a few more hundred yards to the nearest neighbor who went nowhere last August when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire came raging up the mountain.

Like so many others up here, he was determined to stay and battle to save his homestead because, well, that’s what Bonny Dooners do.

And it’s a damn good thing, that rugged frontier spirit. Because those folks of Bonny Doon have another doozy of a would-be disaster upon them: Cheek, now 69 after four decades of incarceration and designated by law a “sexually violent predator,” has been OK’d for conditional release into the county where he began his heinous journey in 1981 by abducting a 21-year-old woman at gunpoint at Seabright Beach and raping her.

Forty years later, it’s the East Bay native’s only known connection to the area — a thought that only further riles local citizens, politicians and those in charge of public safety.

The mantra of a community bonded by strife.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Clearly, this society has yet to find a good answer on how to deal with so-called SVPs since the Sexually Violent Predator Act was passed in 1995, but this much is abundantly clear to anyone who surveys the facts: Placing such a person in a place like Bonny Doon, where one year ago 30% of its 3,000 residents were displaced by fire, would be an irresponsible decision at best, a disaster-in-waiting at worst.

This time Dooners, their Bonny Doon Strong drumbeat still pulsing, will take the battle down the mountain. Tuesday at the Santa Cruz County Courthouse, Judge Syda Cogliati will hear the impassioned pleas of a community that does not need one more lingering pit in its collective stomach.

“We’ve had to normalize a lot in recent years,” says Mike Geluardi, board president of the Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District and one of the community’s main organizers of opposition. “But living with this is not something you can normalize, nor should you think it’s something that should be normalized.”

* * *

Mike Geluardi is helping rally the community against the placement of Michael Cheek on Wild Iris Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Take a drive up Empire Grade from Santa Cruz’s Westside and you quickly know you aren’t squishing your toes in the Surf City sand anymore: the burnt stumps of once-giant redwoods, houses left untouched amidst those reduced to ash, wood chippers trying to redistribute the carnage back into nature’s cycle.

You also notice how quickly cell reception tanks. With GPS navigation damned, it makes just getting to Wild Iris Lane — or anywhere in Bonny Doon — a challenge. And CalFire, last August’s frustrations fresh in mind, will quickly confirm.

It vexes Geluardi, who lives a half-mile up the road and has been spreading the word about the dumpster fire of logistics he sees: two teen girls live in adjacent homes, five teen girls live within 500 feet, there is a private outdoor elementary school next door, a K-12 school bus stop and state park trailhead within a quarter-mile, and a popular 3-mile community walking and jogging loop less than 150 yards from the house where Cheek would live.

Cal Fire at work in Bonny Doon earlier this year.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I try to imagine what it would be like to be a parent living real close, or a potential victim living real close, like 24-7,” he said. “You could never relax. It would be intolerable. It would be chronic trauma. Even if he never did anything threatening. That’s kind of irrelevant.”

Just then someone living really close did walk by and shared the horror his teen daughter has been experiencing since she learned of the news via Instagram. Geluardi has the luxury of controlling the messaging better (he has a 10-year-old) and decided his son is best off knowing nothing about this.

But beyond the cruel psychology of a neighborhood that survived two devastating wildfires in the past 11 years but would probably see many nearby neighbors feel they have to move, what about Cheek’s chances for success up here in a part of the county that often sees 100 inches of rain annually and is susceptible to all extreme acts of nature?

Cal Fire helping with tree removal earlier this year in Bonny Doon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I think he would have a bad experience because it’s just hard to live here — it’s not for the faint of heart and people who are here have the skills and tenacity and the plan to be comfortable and competent here,” Geluardi said. “And if you don’t have those skills, and that experience, you can’t be comfortable. We’re a tight community that relies on our neighbors a lot. And I guarantee you he won’t have anyone supporting him. He is not someone anyone wants knocking at their door.”

* * *

The questions on this one are maddeningly obvious.

Why would a private company based in Pennsylvania that’s responsible for placing sexually violent predators back in society choose a mountainous area with tricky roads, a sketchy power grid and zero cell service that — a quick Google search will show you — is highly susceptible to the most gnarly effects of weather and climate change? (Messages to Liberty Healthcare for explanation went unreturned.)

Syda Cogliati
Syda Cogliati is the Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge presiding over the hearing on Tuesday.
(Via Syda Cogliati)

Why would a homeowner who has been rooted in the area for years subject their neighbors to this kind of psychological torture? (Messages left on various numbers for the owner, Kassandra Hinton, went unreturned and shocked neighbors say they were blown away at her decision and that she “has been unresponsive” to their outreach.)

Why do we need a judge to tell us the plainly obvious?

And what the hell is wrong with this system?

Many Bonny Doon residents are still stuck in the midst of a rebuild, or “where to go next?” dilemma that consumes much of their daily lives. Like they needed this as some sick test of human limits.

But in the same way we’ve all lost friends and loved ones who were among the best humans we ever knew, there is something higher-power about this particular predicament. And when you think back to the ever-lasting images of young men with bandanas wrapped around their faces, running around under an eerie Martian orange sky like characters in a Ray Bradbury novel, you realize this is a community that prides its resiliency above all else.

Just over a year ago, the CZU fire set the world upside down.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Just like the son of Cyndy Cote, who has kept the 120-student Bonny Doon Elementary School running smoothly for 31 years as its administrative assistant. You drive the 15 minutes down Ice Cream Grade from Cheek’s would-be residence, passing the nearby bus stop where children would probably no longer be allowed to walk to, and you arrive upon perhaps the most charming little schoolhouse in America.

Cyndy welcomes visitors into the school’s office with some history (the original school bell dating back to 1947 gets rung at 8:30 daily by an excitable student) and by pulling out photos of her two adult sons who helped save the family home in Bonny Doon’s Pine Ridge area amidst those Martian skies. Of the 90 homes there, theirs was just one of 27 to survive.

“Such a stressful time — there was no communication,” she says, explaining how tricky it was even getting food, water and other essential resources up to her sons and others who remained during the fires. “We were very lucky.”

A tiny school in the middle of the redwoods, Bonny Doon Union Elementary School has a 120 kids.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Asked if the communication factor alone makes a Michael Cheek-to-Bonny Doon proposal an obvious non-starter, Cyndy’s eyes sharpen and she offers a stern, knowing nod — then she walks her guests down through the redwoods to meet Principal Michael Heffner, who is watching after the school’s youngest during playground time and lunch.

Though the vibe feels normal, as buzzing kids rifle through their neatly prepared lunch boxes, Heffner says there is a lot going on under the surface for many Bonny Doon children: “A number of parents report ‘My kid hears a siren, a Red Flag Warning, a power outage.’”

Bonny Doon Elementary Principal Mike Heffner.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And now, pending a judge’s decision Tuesday, a “sexually violent predator.”

“Bringing this guy up here, when this community is still grappling with fire, is such an insult to injury,” said Heffner. “But what we learned through the fire is that, if we stick together, we can handle anything. And this has been a fresh rallying cry.”

Cheek

HOW WE GOT HERE

More to know about the Michael Cheek situation

➤ Michael Cheek, now 69 and classified in the legal system as a sexually violent predator (SVP), is being released by the Department of State Hospitals on conditional status.

SVP status requires heinous, violent sex crimes and a mental health disorder diagnosis supporting a conclusion that it is “likely that he or she will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior” again.

➤ After failed attempts to place Cheek in Redwood City and San Benito County, Liberty Healthcare, a private contractor of the state, struck a deal with homeowner Kassandra Hinton in Bonny Doon. The state would pay $6,500 a month for Cheek to live in a 3-bedroom, 3-bath house.

➤ Cheek would have to wear a GPS ankle bracelet, but county officials and neighbors warn the wifi/cellular signals of Bonny Doon are unreliable. It is not known what stipulations he would have for leaving the house by foot or car.

According to court records, Cheek has been unrepentant about the rapes he committed and while at Atascadero State Hospital a psychiatrist’s report said he was “intimidating,” and “hostile and demanding” and said he did not consider himself a sex offender.

➤ On Tuesday, Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliata will hear from the District Attorney Jeff Rosell and Liberty representatives at 9 a.m. Demonstrators from Bonny Doon, and all around the county, are expected to be outside as early as 7:15.