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Board of Supervisors move to stop placements of sexually violent predators in Santa Cruz County

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KION) Concerns over a sexually violent predator (SVP) possibly being placed in a remote area in Bonny Doon is forcing the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to call for more control over how these convicted criminals are placed into communities.

The Board of Supervisors has unanimously approved an agenda item, authored by Supervisor Ryan Coonerty (District 3), opposing any further placements of SVPs in the county until the California Department of State Hospitals (DHS) amends their code to give local jurisdictions more say.

"We'd like to see the ability for the community to weigh in and veto any sexual predator who may pose a danger to our community. But at the end of the day, we don't get to make that decision. It's a state decision," said Coonerty. "So we're asking the state to give us the authority to have more of a voice on behalf of our community in this process."

The move stems from the state's proposed placement of Michael Cheek, a convicted sex offender, in a Bonny Doon neighborhood. Cheek has been convicted of multiple rapes and an assault charge. He was granted conditional release from the Department of State Hospitals, Coalinga in 2019.

According to the Board of Supervisor's agenda item, Cheek violently abducted and raped a 21-year-old he met at Seabright Beach back in 1980. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, before he escaped from custody in 1981 and committed another rape of a 15-year-old girl in Lake County.

Neighbors in Bonny Doon are speaking out against his release into the remote area.

"Putting a sexually violent predator up in the mountains where they can't be monitored next to a family of six kids, next to a private school, next to a park doesn't make any kind of sense," said Joe Brennan, who lives with his six kids right up the street from Cheek's proposed placement. "We don't have cell coverage here. We get power outages all the time. We're a long ways from any sort of sheriff or police support. So really, the only thing that would actually be stopping him from abducting my daughter would be his own willpower."

When predators like Cheek are granted release, DHS works with its contractor, Liberty Healthcare, to place them in a home and coordinate outpatient treatment.

Mike Geluardi, who is the Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District Board President, questions how the Bonny Doon area would cater to that outpatient treatment.

"This placement is supposed to be outpatient therapy, but is the right way to manage a mental health disorder that predisposes someone to sexually violent crimes, to place them alone in a house, in a secluded, remote wooded neighborhood surrounded by families with teenage girls? Where getting to the services and treatment that's necessary to manage that disorder is difficult? Is that really the treatment plan for Michael Cheek?" said Geluardi.

Coonerty says Liberty Healthcare often pays homeowners two to three times the market rent to house these individuals. Neighbors say the homeowner in Bonny Doon, who they have known for years, has gone silent.

"Looking at the contract with Liberty Healthcare, they're actually paid more for every individual that they place in the community than for individuals in the hospital. So they're dramatically incentivized to get people out of the hospital into homes, regardless of whether or not the area is an appropriate fit," said Brennan.

If he is placed in Bonny Doon, Cheek would be on a GPS monitor reliant on Wi-Fi. Bonny Doon is notorious for bad cell signal and frequent power outages.

Coonerty also argues that Cheek's only connection to Santa Cruz County is that he raped a woman there, and past reports from his treatment team indicates that he is "unrepentant," "intimidating" and "hostile."

His placement would be another blow for a community still recovering from last year's devastating wildfires.

"The home is $6,500 a month to rent. There's hundreds of homes that have been burnt up here. Families have had to leave the area, and they would love to come back and live in the area. But Liberty Healthcare is trying to put a sexually violent predator into this luxury home," said Brennan.

The action taken by the Board of Supervisors declares Santa Cruz County off-limits for any further SVP placements until they believe the placement process is improved. However, the agenda item won't affect the court's upcoming decision to place Cheek in Bonny Doon.

"This needs to change because it's actually happening all over the state. In multiple areas in San Diego County and in LA County, there are several examples where judges have ruled against Liberty's suggested placements because they're really inappropriate. To put somebody like that in this area doesn't make any sense to anybody except the company making a lot of money from it. So we need to fix that structure. People need to write their state senators and demand change," said Brennan.

Cheek's next court hearing regarding his placement in Bonny Doon is scheduled for November 15.

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Lisa Principi

Lisa Principi is a reporter at KION News Channel 5/46.

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