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.
Leyva was convicted last week of attempted voluntary manslaughter, among other charges, and faces more than 13 years in prison.
"How could you release someone who has a violent record?" asked Arreola's mother, Diana Muñoz. "He should have never been considered for release."
At the start of realignment, the Fresno County jail was so crowded, said Asst. Sheriff Tom Gattie, that he told parole agents not to bother bringing in violators: "They're going to be out the door before you get your reports written."
Even with the recent addition of 860 beds, Gattie said, the jail is still overcrowded and parole violators are released early.
State records show that 42 sex offenders in Fresno County violated parole repeatedly during the yearlong period starting in October 2011. One was Fidel Tafoya, who court files show has a history of assaulting women on college campuses. In May 2012, he was ordered to serve five months for violating parole, but the jail was full and he was freed instead.
In November, he cut off his GPS tracker, according to parole records. Days later he was arrested at Cal State Fresno — his second arrest on that campus — on suspicion of grabbing a female student in the library. He is in custody on a sexual battery charge, to which he has pleaded not guilty.
Parole officials have filed complaints with the California State Auditor, an oversight agency, accusing the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation of, in part, practicing "secrecy and avoidance" on a public safety issue.
Corrections officials denied avoiding the issue and pointed to the online GPS arrest warrants as evidence of their public disclosure.
In addition, they said in a prepared statement that the department has reached agreements with seven counties on a process for evaluating which sex offenders should not be set free. "The state and counties have found a working resolution to these concerns," the statement said.
But the judge who signs release orders in one of those counties, San Joaquin, refuted that claim. Superior Court Judge Richard Guiliani said that because state parole officials have exclusive records of offenders' criminal histories, he asked a regional parole administrator to decide whom to keep and whom to release. The judge promised to keep 25 jail beds for violators.
But the administrator, whom Guiliani declined to identify, said no, the judge recounted.
"Sooner or later," he said, "somebody is going to get out early and they are going to commit a horrible offense." Officials "don't want the question, 'Who let them out? Did parole let them out?' So it falls on my head."
Lawmakers acknowledge there's a problem.
A proposal by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) would require that parolees who tamper with their GPS devices be sent back to prison for up to three years. Other lawmakers have similar bills in the works.
Guiliani said Lieu's proposal would still leave hundreds of other dangerous parole violators for whom there are no jail cells.