Freedom for James RodriguezBy Elizabeth S. Thompson, Ph.D.
Former clinical psychologist at Atascadero State Hospital from 11/17/98 to 3/30/04,
working in the Sex Offender Commitment Program for Sexually Violent Predators
Five days into freedom, James eats at the Hotel Del Coronado's luscious Sunday brunch and is slightly overwhelmed
Meeting the Sexually Violent Predator
I met James Rodriguez in December of 1998, when he was admitted to Atascadero State Hospital (ASH) under the California's latest civil commitment, Welfare and Institutions Code 6600 series. I had recently been hired as the Unit 23 clinical psychologist there, to provide group therapy to the most recent and unwelcome patient commitment to be sent to ASH, the Sexually Violent Predators (SVPs). California's legislature passed the SVP law in January 1996, which allowed the courts to continue a sex offender's confinement after completion of his prison sentence to court-mandated sex offender treatment. To be committed under W&I 6600, you had to meet specific criteria, which were: 1) having sexually violent offenses against two or more stranger victims, 2) evidence of having a diagnosable mental disorder, and 3) a likelihood that the individual would re-commit the crimes as a result of the diagnosed mental disorder. (Please visit www.dmh.ca.gov/SOCP for more about the SVP program at Atascadero State Hospital.)
James met these three criteria. First, James had two convictions for sexually assaulting stranger victims, Randy and Eddie Chapman, 11- and 9-years old, respectively. James, along with Randy and Eddie's father, mother, uncle, and brother, was first convicted of sodomizing Randy in 1985. Then in 1988, James and the boys' father, Henry Chapman, were convicted of the same offenses against Eddie. Second, James had a diagnosed mental disorder, given by his first state evaluators, Dawn Starr, Ph.D., and Dana Putnam, Ph.D., the first of several who would find James to have Paraphilia NOS, Sexual Sadism, Antisocial and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. The Paraphilia meant he had a condition of "recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors…over a period of at least six months." Finally, because of the recurring "uncontrollable urges, behaviors, or fantasies" to perform sexually deviant acts, along with psychopathy and personality disorders, James was deemed to be unsafe to release to the community and likely to repeat the heinous sadistic crimes for which he was convicted. In fact, Dawn Starr Ph.D. wrote in her report of January 3, 1998: "His high level of psychopathy, strong narcissism, willingness to victimize others in a variety of ways along with many statistical and clinical features which increase the chance of recidivism, and his clinical diagnoses, especially that of paraphilia, suggest that he is likely to behave in future sexually violent criminal behaviors."
So, on May 18, 1998, instead of walking out of Soledad State prison after serving 13 years for crimes James insisted he did not commit, he was sent to Riverside County's Superior Court, the county where his convictions had been handed down. He would go to trial to determine if a jury would find that he met the SVP criteria under Welfare and Institutions Code 6604. They did, and in December 1998 he was on his way to Atascadero State Hospital for a two-year civil commitment, which would stretch into five and one-half years of additional confinement.
An Angry Man
When I first met James, he was an angry man. He seethed anger, and was disrespectful to me and the staff on Unit 23. This wasn't unusual behavior, however, as most of the SVPs who were arriving at ASH were angry. They had served their prison time for the crimes they committed, and now the law found a way to keep them incarcerated indefinitely. The only way to get released from ASH was to prove to the courts that you weren't likely to reoffend, which would be a monumental task if you had a history of several sexual offenses and had been in and out of prison several times, like most of the SVPs had. Or, you could do your two-year commitment, complete the sex offender treatment program, and be recommended by the hospital for the states Conditional Release Program (CONREP). The problem was, in 1998, no one had completed the treatment. The program had barely gotten underway. The first patient to be released from ASH to CONREP was Brian DeVries, in 2003. To date, only two additional patients have been given the hospital's blessing to be conditionally released to CONREP, but only after much rejection from politicians, including our former Governor Gray Davis and the Department of Mental Health's Dr. Stephen Mayberg, and the communities where they were to be released.
I completed one of my first psychological intakes with James. He told me that he hadn't committed the sexual offenses against Randy and Eddie. He said he was a drug addict, "straight up." I believed the part about the drug addict, he had divots in the crooks of each elbow where he had shot up heroin and methamphetamines for 25 years. I didn't believe him, however, about not sexually offending. Why should I have? After all, sex offenders lie, that's what they do best. Besides, he had been convicted, and courts don't convict people unjustly, I thought to myself. It's only on television or in the movies that people are wrongly accused. Besides, James had pled guilty to his sexual offending, so, his claims of innocence fell on deaf ears.
It wasn't until four years later, when James entered my therapy group in May 2002, that the truth finally managed to percolate its way to the surface. James had been back to court on two separate occasions. An SVP goes back to court every two years to face re-commitment or release. It is inevitable in most cases that the SVP is recommitted and sent back to ASH to continue treatment, or start it. More than 80% of the SVPs refuse to participate in sex offender therapy, for a variety of reasons, so when they go back to court, they've done nothing to demonstrate change or that their likelihood to re-offend has been diminished. The first time James went to back to court, his jury found he still met the criteria and sent him back to ASH for another two years. The second time, he tried to convince the jury that he had changed his behavior--he had entered substance abuse treatment, been clean and sober for a number of years, participated in unit government, Native American activities, NA and AA, but he was still found to meet the WIC 6604 and sent back for another two year commitment.
James Begins Sex Offender Therapy
It was in May 2002, after his second recommitment, that James realized the only way to get out of ASH was to participate in the sex offender treatment. He told me he was ready to enter Phase II of our Sex Offender Commitment Program (which is a four-phase program), and I was delighted. I knew James would be an excellent patient in therapy. After all, he had entered substance abuse treatment in 1999 of his own accord, and had made major changes in his attitude and behavior.
While James was in therapy with me, I began to learn more about James' life history and the nature of his convictions. Prior to this time, my contact with him had been minimal, as it was with most of the patients who came to my unit and refused treatment. I discovered that James was born in 1960 on a small Indian reservation in northeast San Diego County. He was born to an alcoholic mother, and nonexistent father. He had a sister who was about 10 years older, and an older brother. When he was two years old, his mother moved the family to Lake Elsinore, to try for a better life. At the age of four, however, he and his older brother were removed from their mother's custody and placed into foster care. He had a number of different foster families over the years, and by the age of 12, started on the road to serious drug addiction, using heroin, pot, and alcohol. He dropped out of school and was placed in group homes, continuation school, and all that stuff. This kind of history was nothing new to me, as the majority of my patients had corrupted childhoods.
Once James started therapy, he soared ahead of his group members, just like I knew he would. He completed all of the group assignments and homework easily and quickly, and he engaged in treatment in a very meaningful way. Within a few months I and my co-facilitator felt he would be ready to move on to the next treatment group, Phase III. I also discovered during this time that James was one of the lowest-risk sex offenders that I had come across at ASH. This was pretty astonishing because in my five and one-half years at ASH, I had done psychological intakes on over 150 SVPs who had resided on my unit at any one time, as well as worked with an additional 100 SVPs in various treatment groups. The Static-99 Risk Score is an actuarial tool used by state evaluators to help determine a patient's risk to reoffend. The score can range anywhere from 0 to 10 or more. James' score was a 3, which placed him in the lowest risk category to sexually reoffend. When I told my program administration that I had a patient with a Static Risk score of 3, the reply I received was, "Why is he still here?" In addition, James' behavior had improved dramatically. He had demonstrated an ability to get along with authority and follow unit rules. He had a good grasp of his high risks to re-offend, took responsibility for his crimes, and was progressing quickly in group. These were the things we hoped for with our patients, that they would change their behaviors, so that when the evaluators came every two years to update their recommitment reports, we could tell them, "Yes, Mr. So-and-so has changed, he's doing what the courts have asked him to do." Still, a patient had virtually no chance to be released from ASH until they completed all four phases of the sex offender program, and were given the hospital as well as the Department of Mental Health's green to be conditionally released.
A Unique Patient--A Unique Outpatient Release Plan
I started to look into the possibility of an "early release" for James. This was unheard of, but something that the Welfare and Institutions Code allowed the hospital to do----WIC 6607 allowed the hospital treatment team, if they felt the patient no longer met the SVP criteria, to petition the court for the patient to be released unconditionally from ASH. I felt James was the rare patient for whom I could make this argument. I had begun to investigate an outpatient treatment plan for him---one that would entail him returning to reside on the Indian reservation where he was born, of which he was an enrolled tribal member. The plan would be for him to receive outpatient therapy from the Indian Health Services, a nonprofit clinic that provided free medical, dental, and mental health services to the registered Indians in northern San Diego County. James would be able to receive free substance abuse treatment, individual counseling, and spiritual mentoring, among many other things. I, along with my unit social worker, got in touch with the Indian reservation, who confirmed that James was in good standing, and that despite having been convicted of two sexual offenses, they would welcome back their tribal member into their community. The folks at Indian Health Services were eager to provide treatment for James. I had an outpatient plan all set up.
In October of 2003, after a third visit to Indian Health Services, and a meeting with the tribal council of his Indian reservation, I informed James' public defender, Sylvia Graber, that when his recommitment trial came up in October of 2003, that I and other members of the treatment team were ready to testify that James no longer met the SVP criteria, and should be released unconditionally to the community.
The trial that was originally slated for October 2003, was postponed until November, and then postponed until December. James finally left for Riverside County Jail in December 2003, as the trial was going to be called. Again, however, it was postponed, postponed, and postponed. For more than 90 days, until March, 2004, James sat in the small cell at Riverside County Jail, while his public defender kept announcing "ready" for trial and the district attorney kept stalling.
In the meantime, I had spoken with the two new evaluators who were assigned to "re-evaluate" James for his recommitment trial, and told them of the treatment team's findings, and that James was a candidate for WIC 6607. I also found that his Static-99 risk score was actually a 2, not a 3, which made his risk to re-offend even lower than before--it translated to his likelihood of sexually reoffending in 15 years at 10%! Most of my patients had risk scores anywhere from 7 to 9 on the Static 99 actuarial.
The E-Mail that Unleashed the Lies Already Told
In February 2004, I had given up at ASH. I was burned out and disgusted with SVP sex offender therapy, ASH, and the Department of Mental Health. The patients were so angry, and their verbal abuse toward staff had taken it's toll on me. The politics of the SVP law and DMH's obvious efforts to keep the patients locked up indefinitely, despite years of treatment, angered me. I decided to turn in my resignation, and leave the area and relocate to San Diego, where I had lived and worked in the 1970s and 80s. I needed a fresh start, and wanted to teach psychology instead of doing therapy. I had been teaching a course at a local community college in San Luis Obispo during the winter of 2004, in addition to working at ASH, and found it was the refreshing change I had been looking for.
James finally returned from Riverside County Jail to ASH the last week of March 2004. The trial was again postponed. The District Attorney was stalling again. I told James' public defender that I would be available to testify even though I wouldn't be working at ASH any longer.
Then, on my last day of work at Atascadero State Hospital, March 30, 2004, I received the e-mail that changed everything. It was from Sylvia Graber, public defender. She said in her e-mail that the DA had interviewed Randy and Eddie Chapman in February 2004 in an effort to get them to testify how horrible James was, and that he should be locked up for eternity. Instead, what he got were two grown men in their 30s, who said the abuse had never happened! Randy and Eddie were interviewed on separate days, February 18 and 20th, by Riverside County DA investigators. Randy was living in a group home, and had no idea where Eddie was, he hadn't seen him in years. Eddie had just gotten out of prison for grand theft, and hadn't seen his older brother Randy since the 1990s. Sylvia wrote, "Randy's testimony is hard to understand, as he is retarded, but Eddie is adamant that the abuse never happened."
I couldn't believe it. What was happening? What does she mean the victims recanted? How could that be? I dashed off to work, and confronted Rodriguez with the e-mail. I was angry and confused. He had been in treatment. He had admitted to the offenses. He took responsibility. I handed him the e-mail and said, "What the F--- is up with this?" He held the paper in his hand and looked at me, his dark brown skin turning white while his eyes began to tear up, and he replied quietly, "Doc, I've been telling you guys this for the past five years, but no one would believe me."
It took days for me to figure it all out, but I put the pieces of the puzzle together and everything made sense. James had lied to me and other group facilitators about committing the sex offenses because it was the only way to get released from the hospital. When we tried to staff him to pass on to Phase III, the staffing officers denied his upward movement because they weren't convinced "that he really acknowledged his attraction to boys." That's because there never was any attraction. He managed to fake his way through the homework, but wasn't able to fake it enough to be a convincing pedophile.
I had a gut feeling from day one, that James Rodriguez didn't fit the SVP mold, but I dismissed those feeling and convinced myself that he had to be a pedophile, in spite of evidence to the contrary. I had spent 40 hours a week for the five and one-half years dealing with, interviewing, treating, talking to, watching, and evaluating, repeat pedophiles and rapists. I observed their behaviors and interactions on the unit with their peers, with staff, and at family visits. James didn't behave like a pedophile. He didn't hang out with young, lower-functioning male patients, like most of the male pedophiles did. He didn't sit glued in front of the television, watching the kiddie shows, like the male pedophiles did. He didn't collect National Geographic, Surfer Magazine, or check out the pictures of young kids in the newspaper. He didn't act, look, or behave like a pedophile. His penile plethysmograph indicated no sexual arousal to boys, only an arousal to a buxom mature-looking teenage girl, who appeared to be over 20. James liked women--it was obvious--he had always been a big flirt with the female staff. Male-oriented pedophiles don't flirt with women.
James had been right all along. There had been never been any ritual, sadistic, sexual abuse. After reading and re-reading the testimony of the victims, I couldn't believe that the bizarre and inconsistent testimony of a 14-year-old retarded boy (the charges were brought forth four years after the abuse was alleged) put five people in prison. And I couldn't believe that the case never went to trial, and that James and the other co-defendants were convinced by their Public Defenders to admit guilt based one "serving six years would be better than 100." Randy's testimony in a court hearing was bizarre and unreal. He claimed there were dead babies in his dad's car, that his dad, uncle, brother, James, and other men had killed and buried children at Featherly Park in Riverside. If all this was true, why didn't the police investigate this as a serial homicide? Randy said that he saw them cut up babies and smear blood on the walls.
I picked up copies of the audiotapes of the DA's interviews with Randy and Eddie. It was mind-blowing. Both Randy and Eddie said their Aunt Naoma coerced them to testify against their father, mother, uncle, brother, and several others, about being sodomized at various times and locations from 1981 to 1983. This is what James had said to me in 1998 and 2000, and 2002, and 2004, that the aunt had forced the boys to testify at a hearing so that she could keep them in custody and continue to get welfare and money for keeping the boys in her care. Once everyone was convicted, she sent the boys to a group home, where they lived until they were of age to leave. Eddie said as a young boy being interviewed by the detectives of Riverside County, that he was kept in a separate room from Randy, and not allowed to go to the bathroom until he told the detectives what they wanted to hear. He also said the detectives threatened to separate him from Randy forever if he didn't say what was required. That's a horrible thing to do to a young child.
After 19 Years, James is Free!
James and his grandson, little James
James was released from ASH on April 19, 2004. The District Attorney had dropped the petition to recommit James as a Sexually Violent Predator. ASH had given him $50, with which he bought his Greyhound bus ticket for $39, and was left with $11. He took the 1:00 p.m. bus and was to be dropped off in downtown San Diego at midnight. Instead, I met him in Santa Maria, California, and directly drove him to see his 23-year-old son, whom he hadn't seen in 19 years, and his 1 ˝ year old grandson. It was a beautiful reunion.
James has been residing on the reservation, and is working full time on the brush crew there, clearing roads and making fire breaks. He has to register every 90 days with the sheriff's department, as he is listed as "high risk" on the county's sex offender internet web site. I've been with him every step of the way. Even though I risk losing my license to practice clinical psychology, as James and I became involved, it has been worth it. I've used some of my savings to hire an attorney to start the process of filing a writ, so James can have his case heard in court, and have a chance to get these convictions overturned. The Chapmans, on the other hand, have nothing.
I've met Henry, Nancy, and Randy. Henry is in his 70s, and is thin and frail. Nancy has chronic schizophrenia, and doesn't make a lot of sense when I talk with her. And Randy is just plain sweet. He has finally been allowed by his social worker to leave the independent-living group home where he had been residing, and return to live with his parents, the first time since the 1980s. Randy apologizes profusely, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please forgive me, Aunt Oma made me say it, she made me say it." Just like on the audiotape, he says, "I don't wanna lie no more." They live in a small trailer on a dirt lot, using disability and whatever other means of social support to sustain their meager lives.
What a tragic event this whole thing has been. A dysfunctional, mentally-ill, drug-addicted, impoverished family, a drug-addict neighbor and some friends, got caught up in a witch hunt and a web of lies and deceit because of a few people's greed and ego trips.
I know everything will work out eventually, it will just take time.
To read about James' and the Chapman's case, please read Ben Ehrenreich's excellent article, "Predator or Prey," in the August 20-26, 2004 edition of the LA Weekly.