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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Convicted Rapist Fights to Be Freed From Hospital

Courts: Ronald Herrera has been held four years since completing sentence for 1971 crimes. He says he's no longer a threat; two mental health experts disagree.

November 17, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County Superior Court judge is expected to rule today on whether authorities can continue to hold a convicted rapist in a state mental hospital until a jury decides whether he is likely to offend again.

Ronald Steven Herrera, 55, became one of the state's first parolees to be held under a controversial 1996 law that allows sex offenders to be locked up in psychiatric wards after they've served their prison sentences.

Four years after he was scheduled to be paroled, Herrera is now fighting for his release in court, as he has done twice before, arguing that he no longer poses a threat to women and has paid his debt to society.

"It was wrong--totally," Herrera said of his 1971 rape of a woman and her teenage daughter.

The assaults occurred after Herrera, a former Santa Paula resident, broke into a Ventura beach home with an accomplice and held three vacationing families captive.

Asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. David Lehr why he sexually assaulted the women, Herrera said: "To this day, I honestly don't know."

Herrera, a pudgy man with dark hair streaked with gray, took the witness stand late Thursday at a preliminary hearing to determine if a jury should decide whether he is to be released or sent back to Atascadero State Hospital for further treatment. Under state law, he is entitled to such a hearing every two years.

Herrera testified that he has responded well to treatment at Atascadero and would not commit additional crimes if released.

But two mental health experts testified that Herrera continues to pose a risk and meets the state definition of a sexually violent predator.

Dr. Gabriela Paladino, a staff psychiatrist at Atascadero and Herrera's former treating physician, testified Thursday that the convicted rapist continues to minimize his crimes and deny his potential to rape again.

Paladino said Herrera suffers from various mental problems, including an antisocial personality disorder, sexual deviation and dramatic mood swings.

"Mr. Herrera has had periods where he has been very paranoid and aggressive in the institution," Paladino said, adding that Herrera once threatened a male psychologist "who is still frightened of him."

Herrera has previously been diagnosed as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic.

But Paladino also acknowledged that Herrera has been well-behaved during the past two years and has participated in his treatment. She noted that Herrera was never a problem when she treated him in the fall of 1999.

Nevertheless, Paladino's opinion was that Herrera should remain at Atascadero and not be released at this time.

As Paladino spoke, Herrera took notes at a courtroom table and occasionally shook his head in disagreement. Three armed deputies eyed him from nearby seats in the empty courtroom, and later checked his paperwork for small wire clips.

They were well aware of his history.

In 1973, less than a week after he was found guilty of rape and other charges, Herrera and three other inmates escaped from the old Oxnard jail after luring two deputies into a cell and confronting them with makeshift daggers fashioned from scrap metal.

Officials said Herrera escaped first, tied up the officers and used their keys to release the other inmates. The escapees then broke into jail lockers, took civilian clothes and took off through a parking lot next to the police station.

Herrera fled to Virginia, where he was later convicted of a series of armed robberies and the attempted murder of a police officer. He served 13 years in a Virginia prison, but authorities there failed to return him to California.

In 1987, Herrera was arrested in Ventura County on a traffic violation. Authorities realized he had never served time for the rape convictions and he was sentenced to eight years and eight months in state prison.

Herrera was scheduled for parole in March 1996, but Ventura County authorities ordered him held under the then-3-month-old Sexually Violent Predator Act.

The law says sexual predators can be held for two-year commitments at mental hospitals for treatment after a jury concludes they meet certain state criteria.

The law was hotly contested at the time of Herrera's first commitment in November 1996. Defense attorneys called it a thinly disguised form of punishment, intended not to treat convicted criminals but to keep them behind bars after their sentences had been served.

But prosecutor Lehr said the California Supreme Court has since ruled the law constitutional. Other legal issues are still pending before the court, however, mostly dealing with how the commitment proceedings should be handled.

That includes a recent Ventura County case, the issues of which center on the confidentiality of psychiatric records and whether a convicted sex offender can be compelled to talk to state mental health experts.

The case is now pending before the state Supreme Court and was the basis for recent legislation signed by Gov. Gray Davis, Lehr said.

As for Herrera, his hearing before retired Judge Allan Steele is expected to conclude today. If a trial is granted, it would probably begin in February.

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