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The Bureaucrat and the Boogeyman

California's Director of Mental Health Wants a Uniform Standard for the Release of the State's Sexually Violent Predators. His.

April 14, 2002|ANITA CHABRIA

Patrick Henry Ghilotti, known as the Lincoln Avenue Rapist for attacking nearly a dozen women in the wealthy Marin County town of San Rafael, was looking forward to Christmas 2001. It promised to be the first holiday that the 46-year-old sex offender would spend as a free man in almost two decades.

From the time he was 22, the son of a prosperous construction magnate had been in prisons and mental hospitals more than he had been out. He'd been convicted of breaking into homes in the early morning hours and sexually assaulting women in a misguided quest to find his "soul mate."

Since 1997, Ghilotti has been locked in Atascadero State Mental Hospital, where California keeps its 345 sexually violent predators, or SVPs, those who have served their time and are no longer in jail. Upon finishing their sentences, the state recommends them for civil commitment for mental illness to the high-security facility near San Luis Obispo. Many SVPs claim the law is just a one-way ticket into an animal factory.

But Ghilotti accepted the treatment, perhaps believing the state department of mental health's tough rhetoric that completing the program was the quickest way out of Atascadero. So, after finishing four years of intensive therapy and having served 12 years in his most recent prison term, Ghilotti felt he was no longer a danger to society. Well within his legal rights, he petitioned the court to let him out. He hoped he would be the first sexually violent predator to be released, albeit conditionally, into the liberal Northern California enclave of Marin County.

Marin prosecutors objected, but the judge claimed his hands were tied. Politicians chimed in their concern, and Ghilotti's past victims began to speak out. Still the court remained on Ghilotti's side, and a release date was put on the calendar for late last year. Stephen Mayberg, head of California's Department of Mental Health, saw a loophole in the law that gave him one last chance to keep Ghilotti at Atascadero. His plan was a legal long shot, but he knew it was the state's only hope for keeping in custody a man that Mayberg feels may still pose a threat to the public.

Mayberg's interpretation of the law put him at the center of a debate that quickly traveled to the California Supreme Court. At issue is how the state's rapidly growing population of sexually violent predators should be handled--and who decides when they are ready to go free. To supporters, Mayberg's gambit could make him a last line of defense in keeping some serial sex offenders off the streets until they no longer pose a danger. To detractors, he's nothing more than an overreaching bureaucrat, bending laws to suit his purposes and cater to political expediencies.

When the court rules in the next few weeks, Mayberg will either gain important power or be forced to rubber-stamp release recommendations for sexually violent predators. In the meantime, arguments continue about whether Stephen Mayberg is just being vigilant--or a vigilante.

With a round frame, balding pate and vibrant blue-green eyes that crinkle when he laughs, Mayberg resembles an out-of-season Santa. It is Valentine's Day, and the 55-year-old clinical psychologist is lunching at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, where he is visiting for a quarterly meeting. The staff has prepared the kind of dismally festive fare that doesn't try to disguise its institutional origin: A pile of potato salad vaguely shaped into a heart, trays of supermarket sandwich fixings, crudites surrounding a decorative duck made of squash, and red "hospital punch" in plastic pitchers.

Known for his ability to put others at ease, Mayberg is jovial and smiling, determined to charm, until the subject of sexually violent predators arises. Then his eyes take on a harder, flatter edge and you can see the stalwart side of his personality. "They are the high school seniors of the institutionalized population," he says between bites of a roast beef sandwich. He calls SVPs some of the most "manipulative" patients in the state system because they are often intelligent, highly functioning individuals who don't believe they need mental care.

"We're really clear that at this stage there is not a cure for sexually violent predators," he adds later. "I don't know that I'm necessarily the last line of defense, but I think I have an obligation to be honest and objective, and if I think that there are risks, I have an imperative to articulate that. I sort of have two clients here. I have to figure out how to deal with the sexually violent predator, and also how to prevent traumatization of innocent folks. The toll this kind of inappropriate behavior takes on everyone is huge. And if I'm really a mental-health clinician at heart, we need to look at how we prevent people from being traumatized."

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