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Paroled sex offenders disarming tracking devices

Thousands of high-risk parolees are removing GPS monitors, often with little risk of serving time, because jails are too full to hold them. Some have been charged with new crimes.

February 23, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Left: Fidel Tafoya didn't serve time for violating parole and is now charged in a new offense. Center: Rith Mam, a child stalker, violated parole, stayed free and was later arrested in a new case. Right: Robert Stone, a rapist and parole violator, was freed and soon charged in a kidnapping.
Left: Fidel Tafoya didn't serve time for violating parole and is now… (Megan's Law and Stockton…)

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of paroled child molesters, rapists and other high-risk sex offenders in California are removing or disarming their court-ordered GPS tracking devices — and some have been charged with new crimes including sexual battery, kidnapping and attempted manslaughter.

The offenders have discovered that they can disable the monitors, often with little risk of serving time for it, a Times investigation has found. The jails are too full to hold them.

"It's a huge problem," said Fresno parole agent Matt Hill. "If the public knew, they'd be shocked."

More than 3,400 arrest warrants for GPS tamperers have been issued since October 2011, when the state began referring parole violators to county jails instead of returning them to its packed prisons. Warrants increased 28% in 2012 compared to the 12 months before the change in custody began. Nearly all of the warrants were for sex offenders, who are the vast majority of convicts with monitors, and many were for repeat violations.

The custody shift is part of Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature's "realignment" program, to comply with court orders to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. But many counties have been under their own court orders to ease crowding in their jails.

Some have freed parole violators within days, or even hours, of arrest rather than keep them in custody. Some have refused to accept them at all.

Before prison realignment took effect, sex offenders who breached parole remained behind bars, awaiting hearings that could send them back to prison for up to a year. Now, the maximum penalty is 180 days in jail, but many never serve that time.

With so little deterrent, parolees "certainly are feeling more bold," said Jack Wallace, an executive at the California Sex Offender Management Board.

Rithy Mam, a convicted child stalker, was arrested three times in two months after skipping parole and was freed almost immediately each time. After his third release, his GPS alarm went off and he vanished, law enforcement records show.

The next day, he turned up in a Stockton living room where a 15-year-old girl was asleep on the couch, police said. The girl told police she awoke to find the stranger staring at her and that he asked "Wanna date?" before leaving the home.

Police say Mam went back twice more that week and menaced the girl and her 13-year-old sister, getting in by giving candy to a toddler, before authorities recaptured him in a local park. He is in custody on new charges of child molestation.

Californians voted in 2006 to require that high-risk sex offenders be tracked for life with GPS monitors strapped to their bodies.

The devices are programmed to record offenders' movements and are intended, at least in part, to deter them from committing crimes. The devices, attached to rubber ankle straps embedded with fiber-optic cable, transmit signals monitored by a private contractor.

They are easy to cut off, but an alarm is triggered when that happens, as it is when they are interfered with in other ways or go dead, or when an offender enters a forbidden area such as a school zone or playground. The monitoring company alerts parole agents by text message or email.

Arrest warrants for GPS tamperers are automatically published online. The Times reviewed that data as well as thousands of jail logs, court documents and criminal histories provided by confidential sources. The records show that the way authorities handle violators can vary significantly by county.

San Bernardino County releases more inmates early from its cramped jails than any other county in California, according to state reports. But sex offenders who violate parole there generally serve their terms. A spokeswoman said the county closely reviews criminal histories, and those with past sex offenses are ineligible for early release.

By contrast, parole violators in San Joaquin County are often set free within a day of arrest.

A review of the county's jail logs shows that nine of the 15 sex offenders arrested for violating parole in December and January were let out within 24 hours, including seven who immediately tampered with their trackers and disappeared. One of the nine, a convicted rapist named Robert Stone, was arrested two weeks later on kidnapping charges and returned to jail, where he remains.

Raoul Leyva, a sex offender with a history of beating women, was arrested in April for fleeing parole and ordered to remain jailed for 100 days. He was out in 16 days and soon bolted again, after allowing the battery on his device to go dead, according to the documents reviewed by The Times.

Less than two weeks later, a drug dealer led police to a Stockton apartment where Leyva's girlfriend, 20-year-old Brandy Arreola, had lain for days on the floor, severely beaten and in a coma. Now brain damaged and confined to a wheelchair, Arreola spends her time watching cartoons.

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