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Such a Deal--$38,000 Saving at the Expense of Our Safety

Wearing a patient’s robe and walking with crutches, Anthony Garcia hobbled out of a Mission Viejo hospital on Nov. 13 and into a friend’s car.

Unfortunately, it was a getaway car.

Garcia is wanted in connection with an array of crimes. If we’re lucky, the massive screw-up by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department that permitted his escape will have a happy ending. Maybe he’ll be captured; so far, he hasn’t.

But it seems just as likely that the final word in this debacle will be spelled l-a-w-s-u-i-t.

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Garcia was bad news. He was admitted into Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center Oct. 26, authorities said, as the result of ramming the stolen truck he was driving into a van on Ortega Highway.

That van was driven by an Orange County man who is recovering from serious injuries in the same Mission Viejo hospital. During Garcia’s nearly three-week stay in the hospital, Riverside authorities had implicated him in two armed holdups, two vehicle thefts and threats to kill at least two people. At the time of the accident, Garcia also allegedly had significant levels of both drugs and alcohol in his system, authorities said.

So, the Riverside Sheriff’s Department knew it wasn’t dealing with some penny-ante suspect. Everything the cops have said about the guy suggests that he is a potential violent menace.

Given that, a reasonable person might ask, how is it that Garcia could sashay out of the hospital and into the waiting arms of his buddies?

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The answer comes down to money. Had Riverside authorities put Garcia into formal custody immediately, as they should have, the county would have been on the hook for his medical bills, which eventually came to nearly $38,000. By deciding to delay his arrest until just before his hospital release, the county would save the expense.

Is the Riverside County sheriff doubling as the county auditor?

Or, more to the point, is the auditor in charge of public safety?

While the delayed-arrest stratagem might be borderline defensible if Garcia had spent his entire hospital stay in a coma, it didn’t make sense for a guy who was able to be up and around. As it was, hospital administrators have said that they repeatedly told Riverside authorities that Garcia might leave the premises.

Still, he was never put in formal custody.

The Sheriff’s Department, realizing that it has no defense for its non-action, said deputies asked the hospital to notify them when Garcia was about to be discharged. Then, authorities said, Garcia would have been arrested.

But anyone who’s ever been in the hospital knows that you’re usually ready to leave a day or so before your actual discharge. And if you know you’re headed for the County Jail upon discharge, you’d be quite tempted to push that timetable up even further.

Was the hospital staff supposed to handcuff Garcia to the bedpost while awaiting sheriff’s deputies?

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I’m sure Riverside County isn’t the only jurisdiction to make a faulty judgment like this. But it’s one thing to make it with a drunk driver, for example, and another to make it with a suspect accused of violent crimes.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has a contract with Western Medical Center-Anaheim to handle cases like Garcia’s, according to Herbert Rosenzweig, the county’s director of medical services.

If an arrested person needs emergency treatment, the person is taken to the nearest hospital, Rosenzweig said. But as soon as their condition is stabilized, the suspect is transferred to Western, where there is a locked medical ward for patients in custody.

“It’s to our advantage to get them transferred as soon as possible,” Rosenzweig said. “We have all the resources there. Security there is provided by the Sheriff’s Department, there’s a secured ward, and we have an arrangement with the hospital and physicians to provide the necessary services.”

Everyone knows that medical costs are often exorbitant. No county wants to pay them for criminal suspects. But public safety is the government’s No. 1 job. To allow a suspect with Garcia’s dossier to walk away carries a potential price tag that could dwarf his medical bill.

The family of the Orange County man injured in the traffic accident with Garcia is outraged that he’s free, as you’d expect. “How can this possibly be?” the injured man’s wife said.

While you can understand her anger, imagine a worse scenario.

Suppose Garcia is guilty; suppose he commits a new crime. How would you like to be the Riverside County sheriff explaining to that victim that Garcia was in the hospital for three weeks and then got up and walked out before deputies could get around to arresting him?

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As I said, can you spell l-a-w - s-u-i-t ?


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