Just before George Vasquez was scheduled to get out of prison, Los Angeles County prosecutors made a plea to the court: Don't let him free — he's too dangerous to live in public.
While in his early 20s, Vasquez had lured young boys who lived in his South L.A. neighborhood to a spot near an alleyway with the promise of candy. He was convicted of molesting several children, ages 6 to 8, court records show.
Prosecutors argued that Vasquez needed to be confined within the walls of a state hospital, where he could receive mental health treatment for his disorder. So at their request, he was locked up while awaiting a trial to determine whether he met the state's definition of a sexually violent predator. If so, he'd be hospitalized for a two-year term.
Seventeen years later, a judge on Tuesday ordered Vasquez's release, ruling that repeated delays in bringing the case to trial had violated the 44-year-old's constitutional rights. The decision could prompt similar release requests from dozens of other sex offenders from Los Angeles County who have been confined to a state hospital for years awaiting trial.
In his written ruling, Superior Court Judge James Bianco acknowledged the potential risk to public safety but said the delays in Vasquez's case were "oppressive to the maximum degree." Bianco noted that requests for postponements — often without reason — came from both prosecutors and defense attorneys. But, he said, that changed in 2014, when prosecutors began pressing for a trial. From then on, Bianco said, the delays were caused "almost entirely from defense counsel's need to prepare the case for trial."
"There was a systemic breakdown of the public defender system," Bianco ruled, noting that five deputy public defenders had handled the case at different times.
In the years since Vasquez was sent to a state hospital, one of the state's two psychologists who examined him has concluded he no longer qualifies as a sexually violent predator, Bianco wrote.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos said the ruling is frustrating for prosecutors, who can't legally force the defense to trial. While much of the blame rests with the public defender's office, Ceballos said, it was "disingenuous" for the judge not to shoulder some of the blame since Bianco — and other judges — didn't replace the public defender's office sooner.
"The end result is a convicted child molester is going to be released," Ceballos said. "I'm really afraid he will molest again."
To Vasquez's younger sister, Ana Federico, her brother's situation is an example of inequality within the system. If he'd had a true advocate in the courtroom, she said, she doubts he would have had his trial endlessly postponed.
"He already paid his time. It's unfair, the system was very unfair," she said, through sobs. "I know what he did was wrong, but why do poor people have to suffer more?"
Vasquez — whose case was first reported by the Los Angeles Daily Journal — is scheduled to be released Feb. 7. The delay, Bianco said, is meant to give the hospital time to arrange for his discharge and to give prosecutors time to decide whether they will appeal the decision.
Mark Brandt, Vasquez's attorney, said he was pleased with the judge's decision, calling it "courageous" and "well-reasoned." The attorney said that Vasquez, who attended the hearing via camera from the state hospital, is "very happy to be reunited with his family."
According to the judge's ruling, Vasquez — who was born and raised in Los Angeles — has "limited intellectual functioning." He was arrested in 1994 after several boys from one family told police that the then 21-year-old had offered them candy if they showed him their penises. They said Vasquez performed oral sex on at least three boys and forced one to give him oral sex, according to court records.
In a police interview, Vasquez admitted that he'd exposed himself to young boys and seen their genitals, according to court records. He told the police that all of the boys wanted to give him oral sex and he let them.
Vasquez said he had been molested as a child by an adult male neighbor.
"I know I screwed up," he told a probation officer after his arrest. "Now all I want is a chance."
A year later, he pleaded no contest to four counts of child molestation and was sentenced to 12 years in state prison.
While Vasquez was serving his time, public outrage over comparatively short sentences given to sex offenders in the past led to a new law that allowed the state to confine predators in locked hospitals for treatment. Under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, prosecutors had to show at a trial that a sex offender suffered from a mental disorder that made him likely to reoffend.
Before Vasquez's release from prison in 2000, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed court papers seeking to have him committed. At the time, the commitments were limited to two-year periods, but voters later approved a measure that extended the terms indefinitely.
In 2002, a judge found there was enough evidence to order Vasquez to a state hospital while he awaited trial, but his case languished.
During a hearing in December 2014, Deputy Public Defender Terry Shenkman — the third lawyer on the case — told Bianco she needed more time to prepare for trial, adding that her office had cut the number of lawyers handling sexually violent predator cases in half, creating an "immense workload."
According to a transcript from the hearing, Bianco said he understood the staffing changes, but stressed the need to go to trial: "You have had this case for 14 years ...14 years is a very, very long time."
The delays, Shenkman told the judge, were due to changes in science over the years, as well as legal issues that needed to be litigated. And, she noted, each time a new attorney in the office got assigned the case, they had to spend time poring through hundreds of pages of records.
A few months before a scheduled trial date, the office moved Shenkman out of the unit and off Vasquez's case, despite her protests, according to Bianco's ruling on Tuesday. Shenkman had warned her boss in writing that the reassignment would cause another delay in the case, Bianco wrote.
In November 2016, her replacement, the fourth deputy public defender on the case, informed the judge that he'd taken over the defense.
Vasquez said he was fed up with the parade of attorneys and the incessant delays.
"Enough is enough," he told the judge.
At a hearing a month later, yet another deputy public defender — the fifth — showed up, saying she'd inherited the case and would need time to prepare for trial. At the end of 2016, the judge removed the public defender's office from the case.
In a recent interview with The Times, Interim Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman defended the office, saying many counties, including Ventura, where he long worked as the public defender, don't have a specific unit dedicated to handling sexually violent predator cases.
"We provide outstanding representation," he said. "Having a very large unit of people who specialize in these cases — and do them day-to-day? — I'm very proud of that."
Michael Suzuki, Vasquez's first attorney who is now a member of the office's leadership team, said the unit's caseload peaked in 2007, following the implementation of a voter-backed initiative that made more offenders eligible for sexually violent predator designation.
At that time, Suzuki said, the office got roughly 60 new sexually violent predator cases a year and had 20 lawyers dedicated to the cases. But over the next six or so years, he said, the workload began to drop to a pace of roughly 15 new sexually violent predator cases a year and the unit was reduced to 10 attorneys and a supervisor. The other lawyers, he said, were assigned to handle felony trials.
The move, Clayman said, was key to providing the "most zealous representation for all of our clients."
Word of the judge's ruling roused anxiety in the neighborhood where Vasquez and his victims grew up, about three miles east of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
Ernie Muñoz, who lives a few houses down from the offender's childhood home and said he remembers hearing about the molestation years ago, said he hopes Vasquez doesn't return to the area.
"Maybe he served his time, but it's still not all right with me," said Muñoz, 50. "Not around my neighborhood."
Another neighbor, Oscar Aguilar, said he worries for the neighborhood children who walk to school alone but also believes that people deserve second chances.
"We're not God to say what we should do with people," he said.
Jan. 10, 12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details of the judge's ruling.
7 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from residents of the neighborhood where Vasquez used to live.
5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Vasquez's attorney and more details about the case.