The man charged in the kidnapping and murder last week of a teenage girl had been given permission to leave a residential drug program in order to visit a Department of Motor Vehicles office, even though the office was closed, state officials confirmed Wednesday.
Authorities also said they were investigating whether state rules requiring that a parole agent approve requests to leave such facilities were violated.
Charles Samuel, a 50-year-old transient, is accused of abducting 17-year-old Lily Burk on Friday afternoon as she ran an errand for her mother, and then slashing her neck after she was unable to withdraw cash from an ATM.
Samuel has not yet entered a plea in the case, and prosecutors have said they would decide later whether to pursue the death penalty against him.
Records obtained by The Times show that since early June Samuel had been enrolled at Menlo House, a residential drug treatment program south of Koreatown, which he entered after being arrested in April for violating the terms of his latest parole.
Officials from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to identify Menlo House specifically, but acknowledged earlier this week that Samuel had been given a day pass from a state-licensed residential drug program on the day Burk was killed. On Wednesday, in response to questions from The Times, the officials confirmed that Samuel had been given written permission by staff at the drug-treatment facility to leave in order to go to a DMV office near USC. The office, however, was closed because of state furloughs. It was unknown why Samuel wanted to visit the DMV.
Samuel left Menlo House early Friday morning on a four-hour pass with another resident, who had demonstrated a level of responsibility and was serving as a peer escort, said a police source with knowledge of the investigation. The source requested anonymity citing the on-going investigation. The two took a bus to a DMV field office and, after discovering it closed, spent the rest of the morning milling about downtown Los Angeles, the source said. At the end of the four hours, the escort returned to the facility alone, telling staff that Samuel had refused to come back.
Seth Unger, the corrections department's press secretary, said the agency was investigating why Samuel was released on a day when the DMV was shuttered. And, before a resident at a facility like Menlo House can be issued permission to leave, the program's staff must first contact a state parole agent and receive approval, he said.
Officials are trying to determine whether such approval was sought and granted in Samuel's case. "We are reviewing the circumstances in this specific instance and whether or not department policy was followed," Unger said.
He added that parolees are not restricted physically from leaving such residential treatment programs because they are not places of incarceration. If a parolee does leave the program without permission, staffers are required to notify a parole official by the next business day. Parolees who do not return are likely to be in violation of the terms of parole and subject to arrest.
A man who identified himself as the manager at Menlo House referred questions to Dr. Gilbert Varela, the director of Central City Community Health Center, which runs the program. Varela did not return calls for comment. State records show that Menlo House has an up-to-date license and capacity to serve 30 people.
In the last three decades, Samuel has been convicted 10 times of crimes including felony burglary and home invasion for which he was sentenced to six years in prison, according to records provided by the L.A. County district attorney's office.
Most of Samuel's convictions were for misdemeanor crimes such as theft, driving on a suspended license or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Samuel has been sentenced to state prison three times, but only one of those offenses was considered a strike under California's Three Strikes Law.