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To Many, Castaic Is an Escape : Neighbors Feel Safe Despite Nearby Jail

July 03, 1994|MARK SABBATINI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CASTAIC — Joni Micals lives across the freeway from a county jail where 44 inmates have escaped during the past 18 months.

The sign on her door reads "Beware of Dog" and a sticker on her front window promotes the National Rifle Assn.

But don't be fooled into thinking Micals lives in fear.

The 39-year-old elementary school teacher said she has no concerns about living next to the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho, a five-jail facility on the east side of Interstate 5 that houses about 10,000 inmates.

Micals said the "Beware of Dog" sign is mostly to remind visitors who come to her door not to let her beagles run out. The NRA sticker was already on the window when she moved into the house five years ago.

"We know there are escapes." But, she said, "The first thing they usually try to do is hitchhike out of here, so we know we're safe."

Not everyone who lives nearby feels that secure.

"When I see police cars in the neighborhood, then I get scared," said Irma Sepulvda, 43, who lives on the same street as Micals. "That's when a lot of neighbors start calling each other."

A convicted car thief escaped from the minimum-security area of Pitchess on June 24 by crawling through a hole in a chain-link fence behind his dorm. Sheriff's officials said the escape was the county jail's 10th this year. Last year, 34 inmates escaped.

Many inmates have escaped by sneaking away from outdoor work assignments, such as grounds keeping, said Errol Van Horne, operations lieutenant of Pitchess.

Much of the 2,800 acres the Pitchess facility occupies consists of open fields surrounded by a razor-wire fence. Often, a single deputy is assigned to guard as many as 20 inmates.

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Van Horne said most of the inmates who have escaped had been convicted of relatively minor, non-violent crimes. He added that those who try to flee usually have an underlying motive.

"Generally, they've gotten a 'Dear John' letter from a girlfriend or wife," Van Horne said. "It's a personal thing. This is not a desperate criminal type of situation."

He said he couldn't recall any recent escapes from the jail's three highest-security facilities.

Micals noted that over the years she and her husband have lived near the jail, they have been temporary foster parents for about 15 elementary school children. She said the county Department of Children's Services has never expressed any reservations about jailbreaks.

"If the DCS trusts us to have children across from the Honor Rancho, it's got to be safe," she said.

A friend who moved to the neighborhood a year before Micals told her what to expect, Micals added. The neighbor had once seen a naked escapee being chased up and down the street by officers.

"The guy had taken off his jail clothes, hoping to get into normal clothes," she said. "But he got caught halfway."

Other residents and employees of the unincorporated area north of Santa Clarita said they rarely hear about escapes.

"In the beginning I used to think about it, but I don't anymore," said Vickie Jones, a cashier for three years at the Shell gas station on Parker Road, just north of Pitchess.

Jones has never seen an escapee. But sheriff's deputies have come by the gas station after jailbreaks to ask employees to keep an eye on the restrooms outside "so the inmates don't clean up or change in there."

Half of the inmates who escape are captured before they make it off the jail's property, Van Horne said.

But one recent escape led to trouble.

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A 29-year-old inmate awaiting trial for robbery escaped April 29 from a medium-security Pitchess facility. It was the only escape this year that did not occur at the jail's minimum-security facility.

The inmate broke into a woman's house nearby, clad only in his underwear and carrying a club, and took off with the woman's jewelry and her car. Deputies recaptured the inmate the next day at a Palmdale motel.

That incident caused some discussion among residents and members of the Castaic Town Council, said Councilman Greg Ferrier. "Everyone said, 'Wait a minute, that's the first time anything has happened to a resident.' "

Ferrier, a realtor, said most customers already know about the jail.

"I make a point of saying, 'Hey, there are a lot of police officers who live up here and the reason they do is because it's safe.' "

"I don't know of any buyers who have not purchased because the Honor Rancho is up here," Ferrier added, but "I'm sure there have been a couple."

Castaic resident Belinda Bernal said she didn't know about the jail when she moved to the community five years ago. Her husband knew the jail was nearby, but didn't tell her.

"When I found out, I was like, 'What have you done?' " she said.

Now, Bernal said she generally considers the freeway a safe buffer between Pitchess and her house. However, she is concerned about the potential for trouble.

"What worries me is there's a lot of kids here whose parents work," she said. "There are no cars at home when their kids come home from school. What happens if something happens then?"

Security improvements at the jail aren't likely soon because of county budget cuts, Van Horne said.

Several Pitchess-area residents said they consider themselves better off than some people who live in the San Fernando Valley and other areas they left behind.

"I would rather live where (inmates are) incarcerated than live down where they live," Ferrier said.

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