As questions remain about who was responsible for the firebombing of a Ventura home for the mentally ill, concerns linger about the presence of such group-care facilities in residential neighborhoods.
One suspect was released this week and another was identified in connection with the May 20 firebombing of the Progress Foundation's Poli Street home, but neighbors say the results of that investigation will not affect their efforts to have the facility shut down.
"This is just the beginning," said Grant Heil, spokesman for the Neighborhood Coalition for Supervised and Safe Residential Care Homes. "We feel it's unconstitutional and an invasion of our rights."
Progress Foundation officials, however, said that neither the firebombing nor any other threats will force their six residents from the Poli Street location.
Only Encourages Mayhem
"Our feeling at that time was that you really can't run," Clyde Reynolds, the group's Ventura County director, said of the firebombing. "To leave, I think, would have only encouraged that kind of action. . . . We're just real anxious to get on with it and demonstrate that (we) are really good neighbors."
Even a proposed ordinance aimed at controlling such facilities is not expected to quell the debate. Under the measure, which is to be considered by the Ventura City Council next month, all new group homes that fall under the city's jurisdiction would have to apply for conditional-use permits and be the subject of a public hearing.
There are now eight such facilities in Ventura, but none of these would be affected by the proposed ordinance.
Heil said the standards are not strict enough. On the other hand, Reynolds said he fears the ordinance could discriminate against future group-care programs.
The dispute over the Progress Foundation home took a frightening and violent turn last May when someone threw a plastic bottle filled with flammable liquid through a window in the Poli Street house two days before it was to be occupied.
Fire and smoke did more than $25,000 in damage to the three-bedroom house, and sent police and fire investigators on a hunt that has spanned the last six months and occupied more than 2,000 hours.
Last Thursday, police arrested Rudy Gutierrez, 32, of Ventura, on suspicion of soliciting a co-worker to firebomb the house and, in a separate incident, to pelt it with paint-filled eggs.
Gutierrez, a neighbor of the Poli Street facility, last March protested the announcement that it would be opening by erecting a six-foot fence, posting American flags, and building a large sign that said, "Keep Our Neighborhood Safe!!"
He was released from County Jail on Monday, however, after the district attorney's office concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to try the case.
"I don't feel the arrest was improper on legal grounds," Chief Deputy District Atty. Vince O'Neill said. "It was simply a decision that the evidence was insufficient to prove the case in court at this time."
Heil applauded that decision. "He lives in our neighborhood," he said of Gutierrez. "We stand by our people. We know he wouldn't do a thing like that."
But Police Lt. Jay Wilson said that he is convinced of Gutierrez' connection with the firebombing.
"I have no doubt," he said. "We have good proof. We have information and such that shows that Rudy Gutierrez was involved in that arson."
The missing link, Wilson said, is that police have not been able to locate Gregorio Garcia, 22, of Ventura, who they suspect actually set the fire at the group-care home.
Wilson said he thinks the district attorney's office would like "to put all the pieces of the puzzle together before they file on Rudy. What happens now? We're going to find Gregorio Garcia--one way or another."
In the meantime, the City Council will turn its attention toward the regulation of such facilities when it considers an ordinance in January that has been in the making for the last eight months.
Started in Northern California
Progress Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs 10 homes in Northern California, announced in March that it had been invited by county mental health officials to begin a group-care program in Ventura.
The program, which serves mentally ill persons who have been previously institutionalized, is designed to integrate them into the community by providing a semi-independent living environment, Reynolds said. The residents should be at a stage of recovery that would allow them to make the transition to fully independent living within a year, he said.
Patients participate in group-counseling sessions regularly, and a round-the-clock supervisor leads them in house meetings. Each patient is expected to devote 20 hours weekly to organized outside activity, ranging from taking classes to doing volunteer work for community agencies.