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Rapist Freed From Hospital

Courts: Ronald Herrera, held at Atascadero after his prison term ended, is deemed no longer a violent sexual predator. He wants to leave state.

November 09, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A convicted rapist who became one of the first inmates to be held in a psychiatric hospital after his prison term expired was released Thursday when doctors concluded that he no longer meets the criteria of a violent sexual predator.

Ronald Herrera, 56, nodded during a court appearance as a prosecutor outlined the strict registration requirements he faces as a convicted sex offender in California.

But Herrera doesn't plan to stick around for long. After nearly 30 years in custody, he said, he plans to start a new life in Arkansas, living with his mother.

Formerly of Santa Paula, Herrera became one of the state's first inmates held under a 1996 law that allows sex offenders to be kept in custody long after they have served their prison sentences.

Under the law, such offenders are entitled to jury trials every two years, at which prosecutors can try to prove that the offender meets certain criteria and continues to pose a danger.

Herrera was to appear in Ventura County court later this month for such a proceeding.

But in recent weeks, two mental health experts concluded Herrera no longer meets the criteria of violent sexual predator and should not be held at Atascadero State Hospital.

"Both doctors say there is not enough evidence that he has a drive, a need to commit sex crimes such that we can infer that he will when he gets out," said Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn.

Based on those findings, Superior Court Judge Kevin McGee signed an order for Herrera's release.

"He was very happy," Quinn said, adding that Herrera has long argued that the predator law violated his rights by keeping him locked up years after he had done his time.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. David Lehr opposed Herrera's release, afraid that he would commit more crimes. But the findings of both doctors, Lehr said, left no legal ground on which to keep Herrera in custody.

However, Lehr said, "we are concerned for the safety of the community, wherever he goes."

Herrera's crimes began in 1971 when he raped a woman and sexually assaulted her teenage daughter during a home-invasion robbery at a Ventura beach residence. Herrera and a friend held three vacationing families hostage at gunpoint for more than a day.

A week after his conviction, he and three other inmates escaped from the old Oxnard jail. Herrera fled to the East Coast, where he committed a series of armed robberies and an attempted murder. He was paroled in Virginia in 1986.

A year later, he was arrested on a traffic violation in Ventura County. Because he never served time for the rape conviction, he was imprisoned. After eight years, he was to be paroled in 1996. But he was kept in custody under the then-new Sexually Violent Predator Act.

During a 1998 hearing, a mental health expert said Herrera had an antisocial personality disorder, sexual deviation and dramatic mood swings. The psychiatrist said Herrera met the criteria for a sexual predator, and a jury decided that he should remain at Atascadero.

But as doctors prepared evaluations for Herrera's Nov. 19 commitment hearing, results from a test used to measure his potential sexual "deviancy" were thrown out as unreliable. So the doctors concluded that he no longer qualified as a predator.

Herrera must register as a sex offender in California in the next four days and inform authorities when he moves. If he does not, he could be charged with a felony--a third strike that could send him back to prison for 25 years.

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