The hubbub at the Santa Cruz County Courthouse on Sept. 7 was so loud a sheriff’s deputy had to tell the 50-plus Bonny Doon community members to pipe down.
They were awaiting a hearing on whether or not convicted rapist Michael Cheek would be allowed to move in, upon release from a state psychiatric institution, and they were united.
“He just doesn’t belong in the neighborhood,” said John Ancic, a 74-year-old Bonny Doon resident of the Pine Ridge area, on the concrete steps outside the courthouse. “It’s just not a place for him to be.”
Reminiscent of an airport checkpoint, the metal detector line snaked out to the courtyard.
Outside Department 6, 60-year-old Stephanie Jessen, who’s lived in Bonny Doon for 40 years, said the crowd size surprised her—but not because so many showed up.
“I was expecting a little bit more,” she said. “When things come down the pike, we stand together.”
Cheek abducted and raped a Santa Cruz woman he met at Seabright Beach in 1980, then escaped and raped another victim in Lake County shortly afterward.
In August 1997, Cheek was committed to the Department of State Hospitals in Coalinga, and in 2009 was officially deemed a violent sexual predator.
Officials say Cheek has been successfully progressing through the state’s rehab program for sex offenders, and Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Siegel ordered Cheek’s conditional release on Oct. 7, 2019.
But Bonny Doon residents are outraged about his possible move to the area, particularly given the realities of life in the remote reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where families are still reeling from last year’s devastating fires.
Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati ultimately gave Cheek and his representatives until Sept. 30 to address the additional questions raised about the location and set the next hearing for Oct. 14 at 9am. She also ordered the company representing Cheek to seek another home for him as an additional option.
When Judge Cogliati called Cheek to court via Zoom around 9am, he was nowhere to be found.
“I’m reluctant to go forward,” the judge said.
Rob Cureton, the clinical director of the state’s Conditional Release Program for Sexually Violent Predators (CONREP SVP), said he’d try to reach Cheek.
The judge ordered him to do so and called the opposing lawyers to her chambers.
Around 9:20am, Cureton was able to patch Cheek through.
“OK, I’m on the phone,” Cheek said. “Sorry.”
The judge started by giving those in attendance a heads-up that she wouldn’t be dealing with whether or not Cheek should stay locked up in a mental health care facility—that had already been decided (and not appealed to a higher authority) two years back.
And, she said, the same thing goes for his ability to reside in Santa Cruz County, and whether or not the government should have to pay his rent.
What is left to be determined, she explained, was if she should approve Cheek’s proposed move to a Wild Iris Lane address.
Judge Cogliati acknowledged the “hundreds” of messages she received from the community—none of which supported Cheek’s plan to move in.
“I did read, and consider, that public comment,” she said, adding that while it’s “extremely important” she doesn’t allow them to sway her perspective, they did raise important points.
“Today’s hearing is about those issues,” she said.
This step was to decide if Liberty Healthcare Corp., the company in charge of CONREP for sex offenders since 2003, could properly supervise Cheek at the remote Santa Cruz Mountains site.
Judge Cogliati had received, within the previous 24 hours, responses to questions about how Liberty might manage Cheek’s release effectively.
“I just want to say there’s still additional issues outstanding,” she said.
Psychologist Cameron Zeidler, the SVP CONREP Community Program Director for Liberty, talked up the company’s 24/7 security detail provided automatically during the first month of release, a “GPS dome” that creates a geofence with a 75-foot radius around the house, and video monitoring she could order.
Judge Cogliati asked about the policing response time in the area, which the sheriff’s office has admitted is quite slow, given Cheek’s crimes put him “on the very high, high end” of the sex-predator spectrum.
Zeidler said while it’s “not at all ideal,” 35-45 minutes is not out of the ordinary for some of the places they place reforming sex criminals.
Judge Cogliati asked how the company would monitor Cheek if the power went out, eliminating GPS capabilities.
The rep explained there would be a generator on the property Cheek can turn on with the flip of a switch.
A slight gasp was audible from the crowd, where about 20-30 people had squeezed in under modified Covid-19, 3-foot social-distancing rules.
“You’re not in the courtroom to hear the sounds that just went through the courtroom,” Cogliati said, asking for further clarification.
“We believe that Mr. Cheek will comply with the terms and conditions,” Zeidler said, promising the company would dispatch someone to the location “as soon as there’s an electrical outage,” and pledged they’d establish a line of communication via satellite telephone.
“This is a highly compliant individual, and a highly treated individual,” he said.
According to the judge, community concerns not addressed by Liberty’s assessment included a home-based school in the area, a bus stop for school children nearby and the trailhead of a popular hiking route located not far from the residence.
Zeidler said their investigations turned up no evidence of a school on the street, and said Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park appeared to be quite far away.
Deputy District Attorney Alex Byers asked the rep to confirm that, if Cheek somehow dropped out of the treatment program, “his risk would be high” to reoffend.
“That is correct,” Zeidler said.
Byers said there were more than 900 public comments submitted.
“They brought forth most of the issues we’re talking about today,” he said. “These issues can’t be remedied.”
After all, it’s not like you can suddenly make Bonny Doon less remote, he said.
“Those roads close all the time; the power goes out all the time,” he said. “We share the Bonny Doon community’s concern that this is a high risk.”
If, indeed, there is a school nearby, placing Cheek on Wild Iris Lane would technically be illegal, he added.
“I see a one-size-fits-all plan,” Byers said, adding locals weren’t happy the company’s approach wasn’t more tailored to the reality of life in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “This is our place. This is Bonny Doon.”
After the hearing, 58-year-old Laurie Sage, who lives just over the ridgeline in Brookdale, said she believes Cheek doesn’t belong in her neck of the woods.
“I’m actually for rehousing criminals that need another chance,” she said. “I absolutely believe in it.”
But, she says, Liberty’s current plan isn’t realistic, something that was underscored for her by a PG&E outage she says she experienced that very morning.
“There are 30 trucks on my road trying to restore the power today,” she said. “It goes on and off, on and off, on and off.”
As a grief counselor who’s been quite busy in the last year, Sage says there’s plenty of anxiety rippling through the redwoods already.
“We can’t have this in our community while we’re still in crisis from the CZU lightning fire,” she said.
But the day’s hearing hit even closer to home—literally—for the teenage girls in the hallway pondering the judge’s ruling. That’s because 14-year-old identical twins Zoey and Nina live on Wild Iris Lane.
It was Zoey’s first time attending court, so on the one hand she said it was “very cool” to experience such an official process in person.
But on the other hand, it was under “less than ideal” circumstances, considering the case was about whether a sexual predator gets to live down the street from her and her sister.
Plus, Zoey says she didn’t appreciate what appeared, to her, to be “deflecting” comments by the Liberty reps.
“This situation is really chaotic,” she said, thinking ahead to what they might do if Cheek gets his wish. “We’re going to have to move out.”
That’s because of how far away it is from help, her sister Nina chimed in.
“It takes, like, ages to get up there,” she said, “—30 minutes on a good day.”
But they feel even worse for their 14-year-old neighbor Elise. She lives right across the street.
“It’s completely ridiculous,” Elise said of Liberty’s plan. “Any other place would be better than that one.”
Elise says she felt the judge handled the case “pretty well” given the heightened emotions at play.
However, she wishes Cheek wasn’t given more time to argue why he should be allowed to become her newest neighbor.
“I wouldn’t feel safe at all,” she said. “And that’s not fair.”