Signs outside a Michael Cheek hearing in Santa Cruz in 2021.
Signs outside a Michael Cheek hearing in Santa Cruz in 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Releasing convicted rapist Cheek to live in RV latest possibility in saga returning to Santa Cruz courtroom

Finding a path for convicted sex offender Michael Cheek back into the community has proved challenging, and on Tuesday, a Santa Cruz County court might consider a measure called “transient release,” under which the state would purchase a recreational vehicle for Cheek to call home. The latest hearing comes after an appeals court ruled that Cheek could not be placed in a house in Bonny Doon. Meanwhile, Cheek’s attorney has argued that continued delays are toeing the line of violating Cheek’s civil right to due process.

On paper, Michael Cheek’s only connection to Santa Cruz County is that in 1980, he kidnapped a 21-year-old Los Gatos woman from Seabright State Beach, raped her at gunpoint and was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a local court. It is the same connection he holds to Lake County, where, after escaping custody in 1981, he committed the same crime against a 15-year-old girl, for which he was given an additional 11 years.

Yet there is a strong possibility Cheek, now 71 years old, will become a Santa Cruz County resident upon his pending release, which attorneys and a judge will discuss during a hearing Tuesday at the Santa Cruz courthouse.

Cheek, formally deemed a sexually violent predator in 1997, has since been under the care of the California Department of State Hospitals. In 2019, the state determined he could reenter society as long as he remained under tight watch. In the four years since, the state, its contractor tasked with housing sexually violent predators, attorneys and judges have been trying and failing to find a house for Cheek. The delay, Cheek’s attorney has argued, is toeing the line of violating the convicted rapist’s civil right to due process.

Now, Cheek may qualify for an alternative rarely granted to sexually violent predators, one which has drawn reluctance from judges and the state, and objection from attorneys and communities. Cheek’s attorney has requested his client be granted a “transient release”: In lieu of placing Cheek in a house where he would be closely watched via cameras, a GPS tracking device and a 24/7 security guard, the state would purchase a recreational vehicle for Cheek to call home. Cheek would still be tracked via GPS, but could have greater freedom of movement on four wheels than inside a guarded property.

Michael Cheek.
(Via California State Department of Hospitals)

This offer of autonomy has not worked particularly well for sexually violent predators in the past. Since 1996, 54 sexually violent predators have been granted the kind of conditional release the state has been seeking for Cheek since 2019. Only eight of those 54 have been granted a transient release. Of those, four committed serious violations of the release terms and were sent back to the state hospital system — a failure rate of 50%, though the Department of State Hospitals has said none of the failures were for sexually violent crimes.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania-based Liberty Healthcare Corporation, the state’s contractor in the housing process for Cheek, is expected to offer more clarity around what a transient release might look like for Cheek. Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers says there is still hope that Liberty will find a house for Cheek, but time is running out.

“Liberty has failed to do its sole job of finding a house for Cheek. It’s frustrating Liberty has put us in this spot,” Byers said Monday afternoon, ahead of the hearing. “Everyone agrees that a transient release is not the safest way to do this. We’re all safer if he has a house. He needs a house. But no one wants Michael Cheek.” (Liberty did not respond to Lookout’s request for comment.)

Why Santa Cruz County?

Byers, who has represented the county in the case since Cheek’s release reached the court in 2019, said he doesn’t believe Santa Cruz County should have been designated as Cheek’s “domicile county” — the primary location for his release — but admits the county is partially to blame.

“[The district attorney’s office] never agreed with Santa Cruz being his domicile county,” Byers said. “The only connection Michael Cheek has to Santa Cruz County is that he came here to commit a crime and sell drugs. But it falls on the county that committed him.”

Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers (left) during a hearing in 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In 1997, as Cheek came up for parole, Byers says county prosecutors successfully petitioned to have Cheek deemed a sexually violent predator. Through this designation, doctors diagnosed Cheek with a mental health disorder and determined he was predisposed to commit the same or similar crime if released. Instead of parole, the court committed Cheek to a state hospital.

However, in institutionalizing Cheek, Santa Cruz County formally became his domicile county, and the preferred location when it came time for a possible release. Byers says this is, in part, because Cheek was a transient when arrested in 1980, and it was not clear to the court which county it should consider his legal home.

“I’m proud we stepped up to do that,” Byers said of the petition to designate Cheek as a sexually violent predator. “But that comes at a cost for us now. There is evidence that his true domicile county was Butte County. A lot of people are upset that he’s here. We don’t think he should be here.”

Liberty initially proposed for Cheek’s placement back in 2020. The state contractor had secured an agreement with his sister to house Cheek; however, the Butte County sheriff and district attorney heavily objected, and the sister eventually withdrew her consent. In 2021, Liberty found a landlord in the Emerald Hills community in San Mateo County who would rent to Cheek, but community outcry was swift and loud and the landlord eventually pulled out.

Then, in July 2021, Liberty proposed placing Cheek in a house on Wild Iris Lane in Bonny Doon. Again, the community vehemently objected to the placement. Byers’ office argued that the area’s remoteness, poor cellphone reception and susceptibility to natural disasters that could block access to the house created an unsafe situation.

The neighbors took it into their own hands, and only a month later, in August, filed documents establishing a homeschool within a quarter-mile of Cheek’s prospective house. Neighbors, as well as the DA’s office, argued that Cheek’s placement would now violate state law. Judge Syda Cogliati ruled that Cheek was exempt since the school was created after the court granted his placement. However, in January of this year, an appeals court overruled Cogliati, deciding Cheek could not move into the Wild Iris Lane home.

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

Liberty then announced it found a home in Paradise, which ignited that community in tumult. A large town hall meeting and more than 2,000 resident comments later, Liberty pulled out of its Paradise placement. Cogliati and Liberty then doubled down on Santa Cruz County, citing new state law that went into effect in January that increased the threshold for sexually violent predators to be placed outside of their domicile county.

Representing Cheek, Santa Cruz-based defense attorney Stephen Prekoski told Cogliati in January that his client was being subject to “egregious amounts of due process violations,” and would petition for a transient release. Prekoski did not respond to Lookout’s multiple requests for comment ahead of this story.

Who’s to blame?

The district attorney’s office is tasked with securing the community while also protecting civil rights. That has suddenly become a difficult balance in Cheek’s case, Byers says. He is confident a transient release is not the safest option for the community or Cheek, but continuing to hold him in state custody violates the civil rights of a person who has served their time and has qualified for a release.

Byers directs much of his frustration toward Liberty, which he says has failed over the past four years in its job to find a home for Cheek. He said “there is no world” in which a community welcomes Cheek without uproar, but that shouldn’t stop Liberty from finding a location.

“At one point they were permitted to look in every county in the state for a place to put Cheek,” Byers said. “It’s frustrating that Liberty has put us in this spot. I’m not saying they haven’t been working, but they haven’t been getting it done.”

A protest sign outside the Santa Cruz County Superior Courthouse in 2021.
A protest sign outside the Santa Cruz County Superior Courthouse in 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

The state contractor has been involved with a similar case in Placer County.

William Robert Stephenson, convicted in the 1990s for multiple violent sexual assaults in Northern California, was, like Cheek, designated as a sexually violent predator and committed to the state hospital system in 2009. He was placed in housing in 2014 but arrested again in 2017 on child pornography charges.

He was recently cleared by doctors to again be released into the community; however, Liberty has had a difficult time housing Stephenson. Similar to Cheek, community uproar has included objections from district attorneys and sheriffs, and residents of one neighborhood even considered building a day care to block his placement, according to CBS Sacramento.

On July 17, a Placer County judge reluctantly granted Stephenson’s petition for a transient release after earlier acknowledging that it was not the ideal conclusion to process.

“As, I think, we all would agree that transient release is not ideal, it’s not safe or appropriate for anybody involved,” Judge Garen Horst said during a May hearing, according to CBS.

In 27 years of the state’s conditional release program that clears sexually violent predators to reenter the community on conditions, Stephenson will be only the ninth (out of 55 total sexually violent predators) to receive transient release. According to media reports, the state will purchase an RV for Stephenson.

Placer County State Assemblymember Joe Patterson, who helped co-author the legislation that created the Sex Offender Management Board, issued a news release soon after the court’s announcement, vowing to take legislative action to end the practice of transient release.

“I don’t think the Legislature felt like they needed to clarify that you can’t put people out on transient status,” Patterson told CBS Sacramento. “But we are definitely going to clarify that next year. I don’t accept that they can’t find housing for them. They have to find housing for them, that’s their job.”

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