Twice-convicted rapist Michael Cheek videoconferences in to Tuesday's hearing from the state hospital in Fresno County.
Twice-convicted rapist Michael Cheek appeared at Tuesday’s hearing via video from the state hospital in Coalinga, where he’s been held for nearly three decades.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Sex offender Michael Cheek denied transient release in Santa Cruz County as efforts continue to place him

“I don’t know why my due process or liberty interest rights are not being considered here,” Michael Cheek told a Santa Cruz court Tuesday. The hearing ended with Judge Syda Cogliati denying his request for transient release, under which the state would purchase an RV for Cheek to call home. Cheek, twice convicted of rape, was cleared by state doctors in 2019 to reenter society under tight watch; Cogliati wants stakeholders to return Sept. 12 with options.

Michael Cheek, the twice-convicted rapist who has been declared by doctors a sexually violent predator, wants the Santa Cruz County Superior Court to begin considering his civil rights.

Cheek, who has been in custody since 1981 after a pair of brutal sexual assaults, has been cleared by the state for conditional release since 2019. Yet after a hearing Tuesday, his path to reentering society appears no further along now than it was then.

He was convicted in 1980 of kidnapping a 21-year-old woman from Seacliff State Beach and raping her at gunpoint, then went on to commit an identical crime against a 15-year-old girl in Lake County after escaping custody a year later. He has spent the past 26 years in a state hospital in Fresno County.

However, the Santa Cruz County Superior Court — tasked with managing the legal process of his release — and Liberty Healthcare Corporation — a state contractor tasked with finding Cheek a home and providing follow-up services — have so far failed to find an agreeable location for his reintroduction to society.

“I’ve been [in custody] for [nearly] 45 years. I don’t know why my due process or liberty interest rights are not being considered here,” Cheek, 71, told the court during a Tuesday hearing in which he had the rare opportunity to speak at length publicly. “I’m tired of this fear that has a false expectation. It’s been a long four years. I want to live through this.”

Each location proposed by Liberty has been met with a fever pitch of community tumult, which has led either prospective landlords or Liberty to revoke the proposal. According to attorneys on both sides, Liberty at one point had the ability to search every county in the state for an address to place Cheek but could not find a home for him. Liberty did not return Lookout’s request for comment, but both the county district attorney’s office and Cheek’s defense attorney said the company has failed in its role.

Michael Cheek's defense attorney, Stephen Prekoski, speaks during Tuesday's hearing in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
Michael Cheek’s defense attorney, Stephen Prekoski, speaks during Tuesday’s hearing in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“This has been a circle jerk of waiting for this man to die,” Cheek’s attorney, Stephen Prekoski, told the court during Tuesday’s hearing. “We cannot do this forever.”

As Cheek approached parole in 1997, the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office petitioned to have him designated as a sexually violent predator, which means he was diagnosed with a mental illness and forced into state hospital care. State doctors determined in 2019 that, although he still needs treatment, Cheek could be reintroduced to society through the state’s conditional release program. The state would rent a home for Cheek, put a 24/7 security guard outside, fence in the property, put a GPS tracking device on him and provide him with regular treatment and welfare check-ins.

However, Liberty has been unable to find a placement for Cheek. Proposals in Butte and San Mateo counties were met with strong pushback from the community and local law enforcement agencies. A month after Liberty announced it had found a potential placement for Cheek in Bonny Doon, residents established a homeschool within a quarter-mile radius of the address, effectively blocking him from being placed there. Now, as an emergency option, the court is considering releasing Cheek in Santa Cruz County on “transient release,” meaning he will have no fixed address upon reentering the community, but will still have to undergo therapy and check-ins.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Syda Cogliati temporarily denied Cheek’s request for that type of release. After learning that Cheek has an older sister in Arizona, and grandchildren potentially somewhere in California, Cogliati said Liberty should look into those possibilities and bring back its findings for the next hearing on Sept. 12. Cheek will remain in the state hospital at least until then.

As part of a potential transient release, the state could purchase a recreational vehicle to house Cheek; however, parking it, especially amid a recent oversized vehicle ban in the city of Santa Cruz, will be a problem, according to county representatives. Ruby Marquez, chief assistant counsel for the county, told Cogliati the county was looking into its own properties to find prospective parking spaces for Cheek’s RV.

Following the hearing, Prekoski told reporters that the RV option was “a total red herring,” and that the county, the community and the DA’s and sheriff’s offices would work to block any parking location proposed by Liberty.

“Everyone knows it’s a red herring,” Prekoski said. “It’s never going to work. Never, never, never, never going to work, not in Santa Cruz County. … The county is never going to find an appropriate location to put Mr. Cheek.”

Inside Tuesday's hearing in Santa Cruz Superior Court.
Inside Tuesday’s hearing in Santa Cruz Superior Court.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Prekoski said he intends to appeal Cogliati’s Tuesday ruling against Cheek’s request for a transient release to California’s 6th District Court of Appeal within the next 30 days.

“I think Mr. Cheek wanted them to fish or cut bait,” Prekoski told reporters. “That’s why I requested a ruling.”

In the meantime, the search for a place to release Cheek continues. Cogliati called for a housing committee — a state-mandated committee made up of the case’s attorneys, Liberty, county officials, law enforcement agencies and the public — to convene before Aug. 31 to discuss options, and report back to the court for the Sept. 12 hearing. Prekoski asked the court whether it would consider moving Cheek to a halfway house or group home in the interim so as to finally release him from the hospital he’s been cleared to leave since 2019. Cogliati similarly denied that request.

Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers, who said little during Tuesday’s hearing, asked the court to remember that Cheek is still categorized as a sexually violent predator and considered dangerous.

“He needs to be placed somewhere, but we need to do it right,” Byers told Lookout. “He’s not just some criminal who is up for parole. His danger should never be forgotten.”

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