A onetime Los Angeles County probation officer has been charged with meeting a 16-year-old girl for a sexual liaison at a Palmdale motel. He had met the girl when she was being held at a county juvenile camp where he worked.
Jeffrey Eckler, who was fired in the wake of the rendezvous, allegedly exchanged steamy text messages with the girl before their March 23, 2009, meeting, according to L.A. prosecutors. The girl had run away from a county group home to meet with Eckler, authorities said.
The case is another black eye for the Probation Department, which has struggled to deal with problem officers. Eckler's is one of 11 cases highlighted in a Times report earlier this year on juvenile detention officers and deputy probation officers either convicted of or disciplined for inappropriate conduct involving probationers. The Times reported last month that there is a long backlog of unresolved misconduct investigations.
Eckler was the subject an earlier inquiry into allegations that he made inappropriate comments to a different girl staying at a probation camp, a source familiar with the investigation told The Times. But the inquiry did not find wrongdoing, and officials said the girl refused to cooperate.
At the time of his arrest, Eckler was under investigation by the Probation Department for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with the 16-year-old girl involved in the motel case. During that inquiry, he was placed in a job where he was not supposed to have contact with youths.
Eckler, 50, is charged with felony meeting a minor for lewd purposes, felony burglary and the misdemeanors of annoying a child and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He could receive more than eight years in prison if convicted of all the charges.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Natalie Adomian said Eckler surrendered to authorities last week, several months after a warrant was issued in the case. Eckler appeared at a downtown L.A. courtroom, entered a not guilty plea and was released in lieu of $265,000 bail. His attorney, Mona Soo Hoo, said she is not prepared to comment because she just received the case.
In March 2009, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies discovered the alleged liaison when they stopped the girl walking near the motel. Deputies found methamphetamines in her backpack, detained her and took her back to the motel room, where they found Eckler, according to investigators.
Once there, they arrested him on suspicion of meeting with a minor for the purposes of engaging in lewd behavior. Prosecutors allege that Eckler committed burglary because he entered the room with the intent of committing a crime.
After the arrest, the Probation Department placed Eckler on leave. Kerri Webb, department spokeswoman, said he was subsequently fired.
Adomian said Eckler was charged in March but did not surrender until June 29. She said he had apparently left the area and told authorities he learned of the charges only when he applied for a passport.
Although the county has terminated Eckler, he is appealing the decision though the Civil Service process, officials said.