Members of the Bonny Doon community turned out Tuesday morning
Members of the Bonny Doon community turned out Tuesday at Santa Cruz County Superior Court to express their displeasure with the proposed placement of Michael Cheek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Judge acknowledges unpopularity of sexually violent predator’s Bonny Doon placement, but wants to hear more

Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati continued the hearing about “sexually violent predator” Michael Cheek’s proposed placement on Wild Iris Lane to Oct. 14. Outside the courthouse Tuesday, community members made their feelings clear with signs such as “Keep Michael Cheek away from our families.”

Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati decided Tuesday morning that she needs to hear more about the potential relocation of repeat sex offender Michael Thomas Cheek to Bonny Doon, scheduling another hearing for next month.

The 69-year-old Cheek, who was convicted of multiple rapes and an assault charge in the 1980s, is currently under the care of the Coalinga State Hospital and the California Department of State Hospitals. Cheek has been recommended for conditional placement in a three-bedroom, three-bath house on Wild Iris Lane in Bonny Doon.

Prior to the 9 a.m. hearing, more than 60 residents gathered outside the courthouse, gripping signs expressing outrage. Multiple signs printed on red boards sat on the steps of the courthouse, reading, “Keep Michael Cheek away from our families.” All but seven of the protestors found their way into the courthouse, though the majority of the crowd had to remain outside the courtroom during proceedings.

Those in attendance Tuesday had a clear message: Michael Cheek is not welcome in their community. Kathy Wright, a Bonny Doon resident and mother of two teenage daughters, called the situation “ridiculous.”

“There are Bonny Doon families who haven’t been able to come back [because of the CZU fire], and haven’t been able to live in their own community,” Wright said. “And this one guy somehow is getting funded to live in this house? I was so angry.”

Judge acknowledges public input

Cheek did not appear in court Tuesday, but after a brief recess, he did connect with the court via telephone on the hearing’s Zoom call.

Following the break, Cogliati addressed the room and acknowledged that she had read and was made aware of several public opinions concerning the case. She reiterated, however, that the court would not be swayed by public opinion and that the purpose of this case was to determine the adequacy and appropriateness of Cheek’s relocation in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“There were hundreds of public comments, none of which favored the placing in Bonny Doon,” Cogliati said, adding the decisions on relocating Cheek and housing him in Santa Cruz County were made two years prior. Those decisions were not challenged then and would not be revisited during the hearing, Cogliati said.

The courtroom scene on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The court decided on a continuation of the case that will extend to next month. The decision was based on the need for further review and revaluation of a few key components of Cheek’s housing situation. Liberty Healthcare, a Pennsylvania-based health care firm, is overseeing his relocation from the Department of State Hospital’s care to a potential site in Bonny Doon.

The main areas Liberty will need to reevaluate encompass several public safety concerns, including:

  • The proximity of a homeschool location that is reported to be next door to Cheek’s proposed location
  • The proximity of a bus stop near his potential home
  • The proximity of a hiking trail that connects to Henry Cowell State Park
  • An improved and more detailed plan on how Liberty is expected to handle power outages in the area if and when they occur

Liberty fills in some details

During the hearing, Cameron Zeidler, a psychologist with Liberty Healthcare, addressed a few matters surrounding Cheek’s proposed living situation. This included further explanation on response time, security and how Liberty handles potential power outages.

“The patient would not be free to have transport away from the house without police or staff escort,” Zeidler said.

During the hearing, Zeidler said that patients such as Cheek typically have an initial period of one-on-one, 24/7 supervision. This would be conducted by a combination of Liberty staff, a security guard or other law enforcement for up to a month. While supervision is warranted during the transition, Zeidler said Cheek has been “highly treated and compliant.”

In general, he said, Liberty’s goal is to continue treatment through private outpatient services, with the aim of allowing a patient the opportunity for an unconditional release and be rehabilitated into the public.

In addition, Liberty has reported that EMS response times — including health and fire departments but not law enforcement — usually are within 25 to 30 minutes.

“We have never been able to guarantee a response time better than 25 to 30 minutes,” Zeidler said.

What if the power goes out?

Zeidler also addressed concerns over cellphone reception and potential power outages, which can occur more frequently in Bonny Doon and the Santa Cruz Mountains than other parts of the county.

Staff would be sent to check in on Cheek and also would be able to use a satellite phone to contact him in case of such a situation. This is in addition to a potential on-duty guard and 24-hour surveillance during the first month of his relocation. Zeidler added that power generators will be on site in case of an outage; however, if a staff member or security guard is unavailable, it would be up to Cheek to turn the generator on and restore power.

Members of the Bonny Doon community turned out Tuesday morning
Attorneys for Liberty Healthcare speak to Judge Syda Cogliati.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Patients have been required to turn the power generators on themselves,” he said.

That response prompted a few jeers from the public, in addition to a quick response from Cogliati.

“I think people are imagining the power goes out and he says, ‘I’m not going to turn this on,’ and now you have a dangerous situation,” she said.

Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers criticized the potential relocation to such a remote area, near schoolchildren and teenagers, adding that those conditions cannot be remedied.

“He is going to be surrounded by people that look like his victims,” Byers said.

Byers added that his office was against the recommendation of Cheek’s placement in Bonny Doon and acknowledged that several public officials, the sheriff’s office and more than 900 community letters have conveyed their concerns about and disapproval of Cheek’s admittance into the community.

“I appreciate how much better an investigation they did than Liberty,” Byers said.

Community reaction and what’s next

“I don’t think he should be living anywhere other than prison,” said Marty Zinn of Bonny Doon. “How can you make good on what he’s done to people? I think they should put him in jail and throw away the key,”

For Cabrillo College student Catherine Slight, the idea of Cheek living in her neighborhood is frightening.

“I don’t even know how it’s something people are even considering,” she said. “He’d be moving a mile from our house, and there are a bunch of kids who live here — I have two sisters.”

The home in question is owned by Kassandra Hinton, whom neighbors say has been unreachable since the community learned of Cheek’s potential relocation.

Members of the Bonny Doon community turned out Tuesday morning
Members of the Bonny Doon community turned out Tuesday morning at Santa Cruz County Superior Court to express their displeasure with a proposed placement of Michael Cheek, a “sexually violent predator,” in their neighborhood.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Following the court’s decision to push back to next month, Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District school board president Michael Geluardi remained unsure how Cogliati might decide the matter.

“I think that the judge was asking a lot of the right questions, but I think that she still doesn’t understand the idiocracies of the location of Bonny Doon and living in Bonny Doon,” he said. “I think her current concerns are correct, but I don’t think any of the Bonny Dooners in there were comforted by any of Liberty Healthcare’s responses.”

The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 14 at 9 a.m.