“This body wants to hear facts,” said Ramona Community Planning Group (RCPG) Chair Chris Anderson to a standing-room-only crowd during the group’s Feb. 19 meeting. This special meeting was held for the public to voice concerns about the possible placement of Matthew Hedge, a convicted sexual violent predator (SVP) into the community of Ramona.
Representatives from Liberty Healthcare Corporation, contracted by the State Department of Mental Health (DMH), attended the meeting to explain the processes involved in placement, monitoring, and treatment programs designed to control and rehabilitate released patients, as well as provide safety and security to those living in the community.
Liberty Healthcare’s director of regional operations, Kenneth Carabello, and Executive Director Jayne Shale stood before a frustrated and angry citizenry of Ramona to field questions and provide the facts Anderson had asked for.
Since 2003, Liberty Healthcare has supervised the Conditional Release Program for SVPs in California.
”This is a program that California law determined SVPs could be conditionally released into a community,” said Carabello. “Ten SVPs from San Diego have been released back into the community. Two were released conditionally, two on parole, and six are out with no supervision at all.”
The Conditional Release Program is a multi-phase program conducted at the Coalinga State Hospital.
“When they (SVP) come into the program, we utilize a system that is called a containment model,” continued Carabello.
The system emphasizes several key components. One is it is a victim-centered approach, which means that the goal and objective is “no more victims.” A second key is that the SVPs must be accountable for the rules, terms and conditions placed on them.
The individual in question, Matthew Hedge, had plead guilty to molesting four children and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He voluntarily enrolled in the sex offender program and was sent to a mental health facility in 1998 to begin treatment as a Sexually Violent Predator.
According to the County of San Diego District Attorney Office, an SVP is a person who has committed a sex crime and has a mental disorder that makes them dangerous to the community.
Once individuals meet the criteria establishing them as an SVP, they are committed to the Department of Mental Health until deemed ready for community-based treatment, or no longer present a danger to a community. Those determinations are made in a court hearing.
“Liberty Healthcare forms a Community Safety Team with a variety of individuals to watch after this one case,” said Carabello. “This team includes a treatment provider, coordination with local law enforcement, the District Attorney¹s Office, polygraph specialists, and victim advocates.”
In addition, Hedge will be wearing a GPS tracking device, and terms and conditions of his placement require that all his schedules, routes and locations be known in advance.
“We approve or disapprove them, and any deviations are violations which will send him back to Coalinga,” said Carabello.
In 2006, after six weeks of being ordered into outpatient treatment, Hedge violated his terms and conditions by speaking to two girls, lying to staff, and admitting to have deviant sexual fantasies about children. He was returned to custody.
The court has again granted his petition to beplaced in outpatient treatment.
“What is the process used in determining the location where you place SVPs?”, asked planning group member Bob Hailey.
“Most landlords are not willing to rent to a sex offender,” said Carabello. “We try to work with law enforcement, try to make reviews of the residence to see if it would work for supervision as well as safety for the individual, and try to gain community feedback as part of the process.”
“You keep saying ‘try, try, try’,” said RCPG member Jim Piva. “We live in this community, and ‘try’ is not a very strong word to hang the safety of your children on. You¹re talking about his safety as well as our own. Is a community like Ramona a place for him to be safe?”
Liberty Healthcare Director Jayne Shale responded with, “We do not chose rural areas for placement,” responded Shale of Liberty Healthcare. “We end up going to rural areas due to Jessica¹s Law.”
The passage of Jessica¹s Law in 2006 requires placement of sexual offenders be more than 2,000 feet from schools or parks.
“The courts are very sensitive to placement of sex offenders in the community,” said Shale.
The proposed location selected for Hedge, is a home owned by Charles Koppa at 3337 Highway 67. This property is less than a mile from Hanson Elementary School, two preschools, a Sunday school, two bus stops and the future site of Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church.
Carabello was asked to describe what a typical day would be like for Hedge in Ramona and if he would be going out into the community.
“The answer is yes,” said Carabello. “A day will include Hedge going off to a treatment program, meeting his daily needs and, eventually, we want him to engage in some sort of work that is pro-social to help get his life oriented in the way it should be lived. All of Mr. Hedge’s activities and coming and going will be monitored.”
In terms of what Hedge is “supposed to be doing”, RCPG member Richard Tomlinson set up a scenario.
“Hedge is to be living alone, so potentially he is going to have to go into a grocery store,” Tomlinson said. “Potentially, a person going into that grocery store may have a child with them, and Hedge is right where he is “supposed” to be, interacting with community and with children on a regular basis. That is considered exactly what he is supposed to be doing.”
Carabello replied, “He will need to go into the grocery store and whatever other community activities, so he can learn to live and function on his own. Members of our staff will transport him around.”
Close to 30 residents addressed the RCPG members to voice their opposition to the proposed SVP placement. Their addresses, letters, the meeting attendance and the recommendations from the RCPG will be presented to Judge Michael Wellington before a March 13 hearing to review Hedge’s case.
Among those present at the planning group meeting last Thursday were representatives of U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter and California Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth. Both Hunter and Holllingsworth are against Hedge’s placement and have pledged to work with supervisors and state officials to prevent this placement.
“I am here because I am a lioness,” said PTA leader Kate DeWeerd. “I’m here to protect my cubs.”
DeWeerd pleaded to all in attendance to start writing letters and sending e-mails regarding this issue.
“We do not have any mental health facilities in this area,” said DeWeerd. “He (Hedge) will be closer to our schools than the nearest law enforcement facility. You are putting this sick man in an environment that puts him at high risk of repeating his repugnant crimes against our children.
“How dare you dump this SVP in our community!”
The question was asked if there was any guarantee that none of Ramona¹s children would be molested by Hedge?
“There is no guarantee,” said Carabello. “A support system around this person¹s life is a huge protective factor for reducing a sex offender reoffending.”
“There are other sexual offenders in our community,” said RCPG member Kathy L. Finley. “What level of their crimes compare to this particular individual?”
Carabello responded, “Mr. Hedge is a serious sex offender, and he merits the attention we will be giving to him. Without a civil commitment, Mr. Hedge would have been paroled and free many, many years ago.”
In a letter addressed to Judge Wellington, Supervisor Dianne Jacob stated her opposition to the Hedge placement.
“It is my belief that the heinous acts that Matthew Hedge has committed on children require that he remain in a state mental institution,” Jacob wrote. “Areas of East County should not be a convenient dumping ground for Sexually Violent Predators.”
Carol Tennenbaum is the principal for Hanson Elementary School.
“The selected location is not an isolated one,” she said. “Children take advantage of the open spaces for their play area. He should not be placed in such proximity to our schools, bus stops, or to any area where this repeated, violent, sexual predator can find access to our children.”
The Little People Learning Center is one of the two preschools affected by the proposed placement. A representative from the school stated her analogy.
“The treatment of cancer will in many cases reduce the likelihood that the cancer will return,” she said. “But, cancer patients are not encouraged to return to the environment that caused their cancer. It stands to reason that returning a child molester to an environment where childhood abounds, is a careless, thoughtless act.”
Property owner Charles Koppa addressed the board and those in attendance.
“How many of you have been in a situation where you feel that something went wrong beyond your control?” asked Koppa. “How did we get into this?”
Koppa explained the history behind his house being potentially turned into a haven for Matthew Hedge. It was Koppa’s original plan to turn the vacant three-bedroom, 3-1/2 bath residence into a residential care for the elderly. The economy prompted him to list the house for rent, and representatives from Liberty Healthcare contacted him.
“We went into the backyard and I proudly pointed out the views and told them I want seniors to be sitting right here to watch the sun rise and set,” said Koppa. “They (Liberty) said the home would be perfect for their applications. I asked what application were they in.”
It was then Koppa was told that Liberty was in the business of supporting people recovering and getting out of situations in sexual offense activities. Koppa was told that the area and neighborhood would be canvassed and checked out.
“Not once was the term Violent Sexual Predator brought up,” Koppa said. “I received an unsolicited offer which included a check for $7,350 as a deposit.”
The paperwork he received also stated that a hearing would be held for Matthew Hedge to determine if the court would allow Hedge to reside at the property.
“It further stated that if I chose not to enter into the agreement then the money was to be returned,” said Koppa.
Koppa¹s voice frequently cracked as he stated that he never knew that Hedge was a violent sexual predator, and how suddenly his life was turned upside down with media presence and press releases.
“My character through this process has been damaged. Knowing what I know now, I would not proceed,” Koppa said. Koppa held a FedEx envelop.
“The money is in this envelope,” he said so all could hear. “I did not cash the check. I want to protect your interest.”
Koppa’s announcement was met with thunderous applause from those crowding the room.
RCPG member Dennis Sprong presented a motion to the board that RCPG is against Matthew Hedge being located in Ramona based on the following reasons:
• Within 2,000 feet is a violation of Jessica¹s Law with the future site of Spirit of Joy Church and a future church site recreational field.
• School bus stops are nearby.
• The Methodist Church playground is also within 2000 feet posing another violation to Jessica¹s Law.
• The cost to taxpayers
• Property owner was unaware of the intended occupant and does not want to rent to the individual.
• Ramona children of the 4-H club maintain the Welcome to Ramona sign which is within 2,000 feet of the residence.
• The individual represents a threat to both male and female victims, which equates to 100 percent of our children, and is considered a risk that is far too great for us to approve.
The motion passed unanimously and will be sent along with all other documents to the court for the March 13 hearing at 1:30 p.m. in San Diego Superior Court, Department 55, 220 West Broadway, San Diego. The hearing is open to the public.
NOTE: On Feb. 20, property owner Charles Koppa announced he would not allow Matthew Hedge to reside at his property. Koppa wrote “Return to Sender” and “Contract Void” on an envelope containing the uncashed check. “The contract is broken,” said Koppa. See related story, page 1.