Jacumba Hot Springs, called Jacumba until this year when the owner of a nearby nudist camp bought up most of the town and changed its name, is located roughly 70 miles from San Diego. It's a mix of quaint, rundown and dusty, with a population of 561, according to the 2010 census, now likely closer to 600, according to a local birdwatching blog. Whatever the population, it could soon increase by one.
In August, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Howard Shore ruled that after serving 13 years in prison for molesting four young boys in the early 1990s, 39-year-old Mikel Marshall could be safely released from Coalinga State Hospital, where he'd been sent under California's sexually violent predator (SVP) law. Marshall was in his late teens when he committed his crimes. In 1993, he was convicted of molesting three boys, ages 4, 7 and 8, and given an eight-year suspended prison sentence and probation. In 1994, he was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender and for fondling another child. He was sentenced to 87 years in prison. After an appeal, the sentence was reduced to 13 years, and in 2008, Marshall was committed to Coalinga.
California's SVP law works like this: If a person who's committed certain sexual offenses is found to have a mental disorder that could cause predatory behavior, he's sent to a state hospital for treatment—though participation in treatment's not mandatory. Someone who participates in, and successfully completes, various treatment phases, can petition the court in the county where he committed his crime to be released; successful community reintegration is considered the final phase of treatment.
In October 2012, Marshall filed that petition with the support of hospital staff and his treating clinician, who wrote in an evaluation, "This guy needs to get out and get on with his life."
Though he'd been diagnosed with pedophilia, in a 2011 evaluation, his clinician put his risk of reoffending at "a 1 or 2 on a scale of 0 to 10." The evaluation describes Marshall as having been an awkward, emotionally needy teen, terrified of girls his age and still stuck in childhood. While the hospital's acting medical director didn't immediately support Marshall's petition for release, he testified in August that he'd support Marshall's release in the near future. This was enough to convince the judge.
"It's very significant when Judge Shore, and any other judges, really, in the court house, agree to the release of an SVP," said Michael Ruiz, the public defender who's representing Marshall. "It's not typical; it's atypical."
The judge will have final say over where Marshall is placed. But, given that community reintegration is the goal, the limited options for where an SVP can live raise the question of what "reintegration" truly means. They can't be within 2,000 feet of a park, school or place where children gather—which, according to a 2005 analysis by the District Attorney's office, exempts more than three-quarters of residential parcels in San Diego County, leaving less-dense rural areas as the only option. In some counties, there are no options besides homelessness.
Jay Adams, spokesperson for the California Coalition on Sexual Offending and a clinician who works with sex offenders, said one of her SVP clients ended up living in a tent in a Santa Barbara riverbed; the state hired a guard to monitor him. Last year, Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties battled over placement of an SVP who'd committed most of his crimes in San Jose but had requested to be placed in L.A. County, where he grew up. He ultimately ended up in Palmdale. Adams believes the SVP law casts too wide a net when it comes to who's truly a threat to public safety, putting a strain on state and local resources and a target on the back of SVPs.
During a Dec. 23 hearing on Marshall's placement, Alan Stillman, executive director at Liberty Healthcare, the state contractor that will monitor Marshall once he's released, described the challenges of finding housing for SVPs.
"It usually ends up being a very small area because of the limits of the law and people who want to rent," he said.
Liberty had done an exhaustive search, Stillman told Judge Shore, and had come up with a ranch-style house perched on a hill off Highway 80, accessible only by a narrow, unpaved road. It's not ideal for Marshall, who's been promised a job at his family's business—nowhere near Jacumba. And, it's not ideal for Jacumbans, who argued at the Dec. 23 hearing that with each SVP placement, they feel less safe.
"The backcountry has become the dumping ground of what the city doesn't want," resident Lorrie Ostrander testified.
Ostrander, who was molested as a child, can rattle off the names of SVPs who've been released to East County: David Chambless, Gary Snavely, Frank Johnson, John Norman. Those last three were sent back to the hospital, she pointed out (a hearing's scheduled this week to remove Chambless, who was placed in Jacumba in 2008, from SVP status). The state recently proposed placing SVP Douglas Badger in Campo, a few miles west of Jacumba.
In November, the San Diego Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement Task Force (SAFE), a team made up of law-enforcement representatives that monitors SVP placement, solicited feedback from residents via anonymous forms and received 24 responses. None of them was supportive of Marshall's placement in Jacumba and many were frank in their outrage: "Do not release this demon [sic] he is a liar and a thief of human lives," one read. "Once a sexual predator always a sexual predator."
Ruiz, Marshall's public defender, stressed that his client has been a model patient, fully engaged in treatment.
"Mr. Marshall, at the hospital, he's never shown any interest in child pornography or anything like that. Obviously eyes are on him 24/7 at the hospital and that's what they're looking for—they're looking for those little red flags, so to speak, that the person has these things on their mind, and Mr. Marshall, throughout his stay at the hospital, has never exhibited any behaviors like that."
And, once he's released, he'll have to abide by a long list of conditions that dictate, among other things, where he can go and when and with whom he can communicate. If he violates any conditions, he risks being sent back to Coalinga.
"The leash will be very tight, so to speak," Ruiz said.
But that's no comfort to residents, who noted that where Marshall would be living overlooks a home where two young boys live. "He can sit right in his yard and look down on them playing," Ostrander argued.
The District Attorney's office initially opposed Marshall's release, but with Judge Shore's ruling in favor of his petition, the goal now is to educate residents on how post-release monitoring works, Deputy District Attorney Kristen Spieler said.
"I don't mean to give the community a false sense of safety, but at the same time, it's important for them to understand that these people are extremely closely monitored and we do everything we can to ensure that the public remains safe. I think sometimes that's lost, and they only think this guy's getting out.
"For the first year, these guys typically aren't allowed to leave their house alone," she said.
Spieler also noted that no SVPs released to San Diego County have committed new crimes. Of those who've been sent back to a state hospital, it was for a technical violation of their release conditions.
At the Dec. 23 hearing, Shore said he wanted to drive out to Jacumba to see the property himself. And, at the request of Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Jacumba, he said he'd look into Marshall being housed in a trailer just outside Donovan State Prison, east of Otay Mesa (though, when the same option was proposed for Badger, whose placement hearing was Jan. 3, Judge David Gill, according to media reports, said that wasn't an option since the trailer is uninhabitable). Shore scheduled a follow-up hearing for Jan. 13.
CityBeat requested an interview with Marshall, who's still at Coalinga, but Ruiz declined until the judge finalizes Marshall's placement. So, what would Marshall say to residents if he had the chance?
"He wants to let them know, Look, I understand why you're concerned; I'd be concerned, too, but these are all the things that I've done to better my situation," Ruiz said.
"We can't keep these people locked up forever," he added. "The law requires that they be reintegrated back into society."