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State Fires Parole Chief Amid Controversy

Times Staff Writer

Amid controversy over the placement of paroled sex offenders at hotels and motels near Disneyland, the state fired its parole chief and began removing offenders from areas closest to the theme park, officials said Thursday.

Parole and Community Services Division Director Jim L’Etoile was removed from his job Wednesday. Reached at home Thursday, he declined to comment on why he was terminated but said it wasn’t because of the Disneyland-area placements.

“I don’t believe it had anything to do with that, because all those parolees were housed in compliance with existing law,” he said.

At a time of growing public debate about where and how to handle high-risk sexual offenders released on parole into California communities, the parole division has been criticized this month for its placements near Disneyland and on the grounds of San Quentin State Prison in the Bay Area.

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Parole officials also came in for criticism after the stomping death Monday of a homeless woman by a parolee in Los Angeles.

The parole chief’s departure is the latest in a series of top Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials to either quit or be reassigned in recent months. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office declined to comment Thursday, saying it was a personnel matter.

But the governor’s “highest priority” is public safety, said Tim Tilton, corrections department acting secretary. “Any instance of a paroled sex offender that is inappropriately placed will be investigated and swiftly resolved.”

Tilton’s statement did not mention the departure of L’Etoile. Media inquiries were routed to the governor’s office.

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The parole chief’s removal elicited approval Thursday from two Orange County legislators.

Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Anaheim) said it appeared to be the “final straw” in a series of decisions that “were not well thought out.” Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk), who represents a portion of Orange County, said it was “the right decision.” The department was criticized after confirming Wednesday that 23 high-risk sex offenders had been housed within 11 miles of the Anaheim park.

Terry Thornton, a corrections department spokeswoman, said they had removed five offenders from the Anaheim resort area, some of whom were as close as three miles from the park.

L’Etoile’s removal comes just days after Los Angeles officials criticized the parole division for the way it handled a parolee who on Monday allegedly stomped to death a 49-year-old woman on a sidewalk in downtown’s skid row. Kristi Morales died Monday from injuries sustained in the attack.

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Parole officials said they were reviewing why the parolee, Gregory George Hampton, 52, was released after being held 10 days in March. Chief William J. Bratton said he wanted to find out why Hampton, a career criminal with convictions for assault, burglary and narcotics over the last 30 years, was released March 25.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents parts of downtown, has demanded that the department of corrections stop releasing parolees into the area.

“For years, there has been serious concern about the dangerous conditions that are created by jail and prison release programs that use downtown Los Angeles as the preferred site for parolees and probationers, especially those that prey on the homeless and vulnerable,” Perry said.

At San Quentin on Thursday, the last of a dozen paroled sex offenders who had been housed in dormitories on prison property were taken to locations in nearby counties, a spokeswoman said.

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Bermudez, a former parole officer, said his office discovered that corrections officials had moved sex offenders from Los Angeles into South Gate, Norwalk, Pico Rivera and El Monte. The department has denied any “shuffling” of parolees occurred.

The issue will come before California voters in November with a ballot initiative known as the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act, or Jessica’s Law.

It would require high-risk sex offenders on parole to wear tracking devices for the rest of their lives, and bar them from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. It also would allow local governments to add additional prohibited sites, such as child-care centers.

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Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Jenifer Warren and Robert Salladay in Sacramento and Richard Winton in Los Angeles. Reyes reported from Orange County.


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