Updated after the jump: Some doubt this was an “early” release but still question the level of supervision the suspect had.

The transient accused of killing two people in Culver City this month was let out of prison late last year — with three years cut off his time — via a controversial early-release program.

Thirty-one-year-old Zachariah Lehnen's parolee information sheet, obtained by the Weekly, shows that he could have remained in prison until November of 2013 but was let out under California's “non-revocable parole” law, which went into effect last year as an attempt to save taxpayer money by letting low-level, nonviolent offenders out early.

The program has seen other early-release recipients allegedly commit violent acts, including the man accused in last year's murder of Valley Village bride-to-be Cheree Ozmanhodzic. (In that case her fiancee actually arrived and came across the suspect as he was fleeing).

Lehnen was in prison for drug possession. And, as such, he would have been eligible for the early-release program. Culver City police Chief Chief Donald Pedersen, announcing the transient's arrest, said he also had domestic violence on his record. That too, however, would not have prevented non-revocable parole.

Lucien Bergez and Erica Evelyn Escobar.; Credit: Patrick Healy

Lucien Bergez and Erica Evelyn Escobar.; Credit: Patrick Healy

The bodies of 89-year-old Lucien Bergez, said to be a World War II veteran, and 27-year-old Erica Evelyn, were found in Bergez's home near Washington Boulevard and Huron Avenue on May 3 after the elderly man's maid called police. It happened barely six months after Lehnen's release.

Lehnen, who reportedly was seen with the two at a 7-Eleven on Washington and apparently knew the victims, is charged with two counts of suspicion of murder with special circumstances — robbery and torture — that would make him eligible for the death penalty.

His parole sheet lists him as a Social Security-collecting, bipolar transient from Hollywood who had to undergo mandatory drug testing as part of his parole. He was prohibited from drinking alcohol and was listed as in need of regular psychiatric evaluation.

Under the non-revocable parole program, however, police couldn't automatically jail him with no bail if they suspected he was up to no good — as they would be able too with regular parolees.

[Added]: November 9, 2013 was listed as his “max discharge date,” which means authorities could have held him until then (but it appears unlikely in any case, although her certainly could have stayed a little longer). Some like former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would argue that his not an “early” release (see more below).

[Added No. 2]: A trusted expert called us and denied the notion that this was an “early” release, characterizing it more as an inevitable release that was done under non-revocable parole (which means you can't be put back in prison for a technical violation) versus regular parole. The point of non-revocable parole is keep prisoners from going back behind bars for small time violations such as testing dirty for drugs versus committing a new crime. Thus, we save some money on the hotel bill.

In Lehnen's case it's possible (or not) that he had technical violations that would have put him back behind bars under regular parole.

In any case, his eligibility as a non-revocable parolee should be up for debate.

Some public safety advocates have still characterized the non-revocable parole program as constituting early releases, however.

Authorities picked up Lehnen at 1:30 a.m. on May 5 in a West Hollywood alley.

Public safety advocates, including the union the represents Los Angeles police, have been up in arms over the early-release program, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was all for it in the name of saving the red-ink plagued state some money, described as “no prison releases at all.”

Retired parole agent Caroline Aguirre told the Weekly the Lehnen case once again proves that early release is a disaster.

“This policy is a dangerous,” she said. “It is a health and safety issue.”

We have a call into Culver City police requesting reaction from Chief Pedersen.


LA Weekly