By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Once again, the child was the only witness called, and once again, the case never went to trial. Rodriguez and his co-defendants all took pleas, in his case adding nine years to his sentence. “There was no beating it anyhow,” he says now with a shrug. When interviewed by a probation officer at the time, Rodriguez “declined to comment on circumstances surrounding his behavior with Eddie, expressing a desire to return to Folsom as soon as possible.”
The years passed slowly, and Rodriguez did his best to stay intoxicated, “just to sleep the time away” — on pruno (prison-brewed wine) or pot, meth or heroin, whatever found its way through the prison walls. He was at Soledad in January of 1998 and due to be paroled in six months, when he received a visit from two mental-health evaluators named Dana Putnam and Dawn Starr. Rodriguez didn’t think much of it at the time — he was pissed off and addicted, but otherwise, he says, there was nothing wrong with him. Then on May 17, 1998, a month before he expected to be paroled, guards told an excited if strung-out Rodriguez that he would be released the next morning. The morning came and went. “I said, ‘Hey, what about me?’ They said, ‘Riverside [County] has a hold on you.’ I said, ‘I’ve been incarcerated 13 years, how can they have a hold on me?’ He says, ‘I don’t know, man.’”
A lot had happened in 13 years. In the mid-1990s, a second wave of moral panic about sexual abuse overtook the country. The murders of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma in 1993 and 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1994 lodged a new sort of monster in the recesses of the American imagination: the sexual predator. Though the term rarely appeared in the press prior to the 1990s, it appeared 865 times in major American papers in 1994, and 924 in ’95. Public anxiety was proportional, and political responses immediate. The same year that Californians voted in the three-strikes initiative, the state Legislature passed a still tougher “one-strike” statute that mandated a sentence of 25 years to life for a single conviction of certain sex crimes. Concerned that sex offenders who had been sentenced prior to the new law might nonetheless go free, legislators closed the gap with another bill, passed in 1995. Henceforth anyone who had committed specified sex offenses involving at least two victims, and whom state evaluators determined to be suffering from a mental disorder (which the statute defined broadly enough to be almost synonymous with having committed a sex crime) and likely to offend again, would be classified as an SVP and subject to forced commitment to Atascadero, a 50-year-old razor-wire-fortified complex at the end of a long and almost idyllic tree-lined drive in the town of the same name, about 15 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo.
The name Atascadero comes from a Spanish word meaning mire or dead end, but the institution is usually referred to by its equally fitting official acronym: ASH. Theoretically, SVPs can be confined there for only two years, after which the state has to again make its case to a jury for another two-year commitment, but because juries are so reluctant to free anyone bearing the label sexually violent predator, SVP status usually means an indefinite term of incarceration. Of the nearly 500 men classified as SVPs since the law took effect in 1996, only three have completed the hospital’s treatment program and been released; 36 have won their freedom in the courts, and 19 have died at ASH.
When James Rodriguez arrived at the Riverside County jail to await his SVP hearing, he was frustrated, he says, but not overly concerned. “There was nothing abnormal about my way of thinking sexually, so I didn’t think they would ever commit me.” But Starr and Putnam testified in court, “and they just made me out to be a devil.” Because he had insisted on his innocence, “Right away, they put me down as being in denial,” he says. More specifically, they diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder, “poly-substance abuse,” and paraphilia, a catchall term for sexual deviancy. Starr testified that Rodriguez’s “high level of psychopathy, strong narcissism, willingness to victimize others in a variety of ways . . . and his clinical diagnoses, especially that of pedophilia, suggest that he is likely to behave in future sexually violent criminal behaviors.” Rodriguez’s jury heard the full range of Randy’s and Eddie’s decade-old allegations, baby rape and all. Rodriguez himself had never heard them in such full detail. “They were very heinous,” he says, his brow knit with something like wonder. “They even scared me.” The jury, he says, took only 20 minutes to come back with a decision. He was sent to Atascadero in December.
Elizabeth Thompson was Rodriguez’s unit psychologist from the start. “My initial impression was that he was a very angry man,” she says, but that didn’t differentiate him much from any of the other patients, most of whom are enraged at finding themselves institutionalized indefinitely after serving out their prison time. The vast majority consider Atascadero’s treatment program a sham and refuse to participate, preferring to take their chances with the courts. (The state Department of Mental Health says “less than 40 percent” are in treatment; Thompson puts the figure at about 20 percent.) Nor was there anything unusual about Rodriguez’s crimes — compared with those of other inmates at ASH, many of whom are repeat offenders, Thompson says, they were “not particularly horrific” — or his insistence on his innocence. It’s a rare convict that doesn’t claim the same. “We don’t believe them,” Thompson says. “They’re sex offenders — they lie.”