Sex offender is free -- and reduced to a riverbed
Habitual sex offender Ross Wollschlager has bounced from one Ventura County hotel to another in the weeks since his release from a state mental hospital, getting ejected each time the owner learned of his identity.
Publicity about his release has made it impossible for the 44-year-old convicted rapist to find a rural landlord willing to give him a place to live.
After seven evictions, Liberty Healthcare Corp., a San Diego company hired by the state to help Wollschlager get resettled, gave him a tent and he began living in the Ventura River bottom. He is overseen by a taxpayer-funded security guard who stays in a vehicle nearby.
Wollschlager’s predicament has reignited debate on whether strict new laws governing sex offenders are making it harder to monitor them.
Jessica’s Law, passed overwhelmingly by voters last fall, bars Wollschlager from living within 2,000 feet -- about half a mile -- of any school, park or beach. He wears two monitoring devices on his ankle and shuttles between his campsite and a friend’s home in Oxnard each day.
“It’s harder to protect the public when he is homeless,” said Margaret Coyle, a county prosecutor who opposed Wollschlager’s release. “Were he in a condo or an apartment, we could supervise him more effectively.”
But Will Smith, chief of staff for state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who sponsored Jessica’s Law, said he believes it is effective in protecting residents.
“We’ve never made any argument that it wouldn’t be harder to find housing, but we’ve always argued that it would be safer,” Smith said. “We think the safety of residents in California outweighs any inconvenience on [Wollschlager’s] part.”
Liberty Healthcare is continuing to look for a more permanent placement for Wollschlager, a search that began 17 months ago, said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health. It’s not the first time a sex offender has become homeless upon release, Kincaid said.
Last summer, before Jessica’s Law was approved, child molester Timothy Boggs was “chased from hotel to hotel” in Sacramento until a bail bondsman stepped forward to offer him a place to stay in his office, she said.
In San Luis Obispo County, felon Frederick Hoffman is scheduled to live in a trailer near military training grounds after his release.
On Friday, the state Department of Corrections announced that it had notified 2,741 sex offenders, who were paroled after Nov. 8, 2006, that they were in violation of housing restrictions mandated by Jessica’s Law. The parolees now have less than 45 days to comply with the law.
The problem is only going to get bigger, Kincaid said. More than 650 convicts are being treated as repeat sex offenders, and at least 11 of them could be released within a year. Meanwhile, Jessica’s Law expanded the definition of who should be treated for sex offenses, and referrals to the state-run sexually violent predator treatment program have grown from 50 a month to more than 700, Kincaid said.
“How on Earth do we do what the voters asked for -- that is, how do we track these people? I really don’t know,” she said.
A 146-page report titled “No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States,” scheduled for release next week by the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, is expected to be critical of such laws and policies and to urge state and federal reforms, including the elimination of residency restrictions.
Wollschlager said he understands why society feels the way it does about sex offenders. He was convicted of two rapes in the 1980s, and later, of molesting a 10-year-old girl as she slept.
“I hated myself for a lot of years for what I did. But I’ve made a lot of changes in my life,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t care about that. I hope my actions will speak louder than words.”
Wollschlager’s attorneys say his case demonstrates how a tangle of sex offender laws, court orders and public fear can produce unintended consequences.
At age 19, he was convicted of the rapes, in which he entered his female victims’ homes in the middle of the night. He was paroled after serving half of his eight-year sentence. Two years later, after a day of drinking and drug use, Wollschlager again sneaked into a stranger’s home one night.
He recounted how he entered a bedroom where a 10-year-old girl was sleeping. He lay next to her, Wollschlager said, fondling her and asking if she wanted to be his girlfriend. He fled when the girl’s mother snapped on a light, he said, eventually turning himself in to police.
Wollschlager, who grew up in Ventura County and committed his crimes there, said his actions were prompted by rampant alcoholism, drug abuse and “deviant thoughts and fantasies.” Psychological treatment over the last decade has helped him to understand and control his vices, he said.
“I know I can’t repair the damage I did to that family, and to that child,” he said. “I make every effort today to make sure I never do something like that again.”
He was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 and was sent back to prison for 13 years. In 1996, when he was up for release, Wollschlager was instead transferred to Atascadero State Hospital to participate in a then-new program for habitual sex offenders.
Designated a “sexually violent predator,” he was barred from leaving the hospital for 11 more years while he underwent treatment. Last year, Ventura County Judge Rebecca Riley ordered him released after hearing testimony on his progress from state experts, including a psychiatrist.
But he remained in Atascadero 17 months longer as Liberty Healthcare tried without success to find him a Ventura County home. On Aug. 8, an appellate court ruled that he must be released immediately even if a placement could not be found. Ventura County prosecutors and the Department of Mental Health opposed the decision, noting that Wollschlager had completed only half of a five-phase program while in Atascadero. Sheriff Bob Brooks said he was against his release for the same reason.
“It’s a minimum standard, and not completing it demonstrates a lack of desire to change,” Brooks said. He added, however, that Jessica’s Law should be modified to make it workable. “The 2,000-foot distance makes it so hard to find housing,” the sheriff said.
Todd Howeth, Wollschlager’s county-provided lawyer, said his client is committed to turning his life around. He wears a global positioning anklet and an alcohol monitoring device, attends counseling sessions almost daily, and consults with layers of security and bureaucrats before making a move.
The public defender’s office recently filed a petition challenging the restrictions, arguing that Jessica’s Law went into effect months after Riley ordered Wollschlager’s release from Atascadero. Howeth said his client has received death threats and is being treated like a leper.
“Government should provide some kind of facility for these men to transition into,” he said. “Wollschlager has paid his price to society, and if you have this system, they should have housing to go to.”
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Passed with 70.5% of the vote in November 2006, Proposition 83 gave California what experts called the toughest sex offender law in the nation. The law is named for Jessica Lunsford, a young Florida girl who was raped and murdered in February 2005 by John Couey, a convicted sex offender.
Bars registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, park or beach.
Requires lifetime monitoring of sex offenders by electronic tracking devices.
Increases the penalties for habitual and violent sex offenders, and child molesters.
Expands the definition of a sexually violent predator, lowering the required number of minimum offenses from two to one.
Increases the time a sexually violent predator can be involuntarily held in a state mental hospital after serving prison time.
Source: California secretary of state’s office