Santa Cruz's police chief looks on as attorneys interact during a hearing on the future of convicted rapist Michael Cheek
Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante (front left) looks on during Michael Cheek’s hearing Tuesday as (from left) assistant county counsel Ruby Marquez speaks and defense attorney Stephen Prekoski and assistant district attorney Alex Byers listen.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County will again push to release sexually violent predator Cheek elsewhere in state

With efforts to find a suitable property in Santa Cruz County for convicted rapist Michael Cheek proving fruitless, Judge Syda Cogliati on Tuesday asked stakeholders to move toward allowing a state contractor to begin searching outside of the county for housing.

Michael Cheek, the man who in 1980 violently raped a woman he kidnapped from Seacliff State Beach and then went onto commit a similar crime a year later in Lake County, has been cleared for a conditional release from state custody since 2019.

Yet no one knows where, or how, to release a man no one wants.

After a hearing Tuesday, the state, contractor Liberty Healthcare Corporation and the Santa Cruz County criminal justice system — the entities tasked with managing his reintroduction into society — appear no closer to solving the issue of Cheek’s release than they were four years ago.

Liberty Healthcare, a state contractor whose sole task at this point in the process is to find Cheek a place to live so that he can be released from custody, arrived at court Tuesday without any ideas or proposals for where to release Cheek, just as it did during an August hearing.

Given the growing hopelessness of finding a suitable property in Santa Cruz County, Judge Syda Cogliati asked the sides to take the next six weeks to make a formal declaration of extraordinary circumstances, which will allow Liberty to begin searching outside of the county for housing.

Explanations from Liberty have been scant in the public hearings. During Tuesday’s hearing, representatives from the company presented little clarity on why they continue to come up short and hold up Cheek’s release.

Over the span of four years, Liberty has proposed only three locations for Cheek, 71, even after receiving temporary permission to search each of the state’s 57 counties for a single acceptable residence to place Cheek. Those three proposals, one in Bonny Doon and one each in Butte and San Mateo counties, failed, due largely to furious opposition from surrounding neighbors and law enforcement to bringing a sexually violent predator into their community.

Michael Cheek speaks from a state hospital in Fresno County during Tuesday's hearing.
Michael Cheek speaks from a state hospital in Fresno County during Tuesday’s hearing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lately, however, Liberty has narrowed its search, as the state has deemed Cheek’s home county to be here in Santa Cruz. (A recent change in state law now requires “extraordinary circumstances” to place a sexually violent predator outside of their home county.)

Stephen Prekoski, Cheek’s attorney, reemphasized what he saw as Liberty’s failure to do its job. As the court and Liberty continue to delay, Prekoski said the violations of Cheek’s civil rights continue to pile up.

“Personally and professionally, I’m flabbergastedly disappointed in the paucity of housing options brought forward by Liberty,” Prekoski said Tuesday. “Even though they nominally say they continue to search, they continue to fail to find any appropriate [housing] anywhere and that is disappointing. We’re not even one step further ahead in the search for [housing] than we were four years ago, other than eliminating a bunch of places.

“We don’t think the due process [concerns] have been abated or mitigated in any fashion. It just gets worse and worse as time passes.”

As part of releasing sexually violent predators, the state requires the sides to meet with local officials in a public meeting — called housing committees — to transparently discuss a release strategy. Cheek’s housing committee meeting on Sept. 7 lasted 10 minutes and offered no meaningful update. Prekoski, who has been criticized by county prosecutor Alex Byers for not attending the past two meetings, asked the court to increase security at the meetings if he is expected to attend in person, citing his role as representing an “unpopular position” in the case.

Prekoski has pushed the court to grant Cheek a supervised release without a fixed address — what’s known as a transient release. Cogliati said Tuesday she has ordered Liberty multiple times to come up with a workable transient-release strategy for Cheek; however, Cogliati said releasing Cheek without a residence was still inappropriate. At one point, the court discussed releasing Cheek into a recreational vehicle, but that plan has, for now, fizzled out.

“I do think [the plan] is something that Liberty should be continuing to present to the court every time there’s some kind of update on where they are with a potential transient release,” Cogliati said.

Tuesday’s hearing also revealed that Liberty has been incorrectly narrowing its search for housing in Santa Cruz County. According to Ruby Marquez, an attorney for the county, Liberty told her Cheek could not be placed within a mile of a beach or of a school. However, state law mandates only a quarter-mile boundary from a school. Dr. Isamar Mayol Calderon, a Liberty representative, appeared to think that 1,320 feet equated to a mile, not a quarter-mile, until Prekoski and Cogliati did the math.

“So do you agree that it’s not a one-mile [boundary] from a school zone, that it’s actually one quarter-mile?” Cogliati asked.

“Yes, Your Honor, I apologize if there was any confusion, [the boundary] was 1,320 feet,” Calderon said.

Liberty’s beach boundary is because of what it determined to be Cheek’s “risk profile” — his first crime involved kidnapping a woman from Seacliff State Beach. Although he is deemed safe to reenter society, Liberty says placing him too close to a beach could be triggering and create an unnecessary obstacle to his treatment.

Defense attorney Stephen Prekoski speaking during Tuesday's hearing.
Defense attorney Stephen Prekoski speaking during Tuesday’s hearing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“If you took a map and drew a mile boundary from the beach across the county, you wouldn’t have much land left,” Prekoski said. “That’s quite a setup.”

After hearing of another six-week delay in what has been a four-year failure to release him, Cheek, who appeared via video call from a state hospital in Fresno, got visibly agitated and interrupted the judge.

“Every 30 to 60 days I get paraded out to a public whipping post and I have to answer questions about how we treat sex offenders in Santa Cruz County, and how we don’t let them out even though they’ve been found to not be a danger to the community,” Cheek said. “Every 30 to 60 days, my family has to hear this, and I have to hear this. The court continues to set aside what is happening as far as my due process and my civil rights.”

Cogliati cautioned Cheek to maintain his composure while he remained at the whim of the court.

“I believe everybody here is doing what they can. We understand this is not the process that was envisioned by the legislature; it’s not what you envisioned, but I also need to caution you,” Cogliati said. “You know, when you’re looking for a finding to say that you can be released but then you’re interrupting the court and not really being respectful of the court, it’s not appropriate. So I just want to caution you about that.”

The next hearing is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 30, at 10 a.m.

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