For the third time in the last nine months, Judge John T. Feeney of the Humboldt County Superior Court has rejected a plan to rehouse Joshua Cooley – a state-designated sexually violent predator currently committed to Coalinga State Hospital – back here, in his home county.
Feeney drew applause from the crowd of about 40 or so community members this morning, when, after a little more than an hour of testimony, he announced that he would not sign off on the most recent proposal, which would have allowed Cooley to live on a rotating basis in a series of Eureka-area residential motels. This proposal was revived by Feeney himself at a hearing three weeks ago, when he declined to allow Cooley to live at a former pot farm in a rural neighborhood near Garberville.
In 2004, Cooley – who suffers from a brain injury he acquired as a teenager – was convicted of sexual battery against a girl under 12 years old. In 2007 he violated his parole, after being found in the company of three underage minors – two of them also 12 years old – in a hot tub at a house party.
At the end of today’s hearing, Feeney asked Liberty Healthcare – the company charged with finding spots for Cooley to live, and to monitor him upon release – to pursue the possibility of moving Cooley to a private residence in Tehama County, while at the same time following up on a possible permanent place here in Humboldt.
As with the previous two hearings on the matter, pressure from community members in attendance seemed to sway the court. Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson and City Councilmembers Kim Bergel and Heidi Messner were all in attendance and they all gave forceful presentations to the judge, arguing that the transient motel plan would be inappropriate, given that it would put Cooley into close contact with some of the most vulnerable members of the community.
Watson was especially forceful, saying that were Cooley to be placed into the motels he could not guarantee the safety of the citizens of Eureka, of the guests and employees of the motels, or “of Cooley himself.” Given his history, Watson said that he was pretty sure that Cooley would offend again, and he had no confidence in the ability of surveillance technology like ankle bracelets to keep the people safe.
About 10 community members also spoke – some of them concerned parents or grandparents, some of them survivors of abuse – and almost all of them also spoke against placing Cooley in the Eureka motels, or Eureka generally, or anywhere in Humboldt County, or anywhere outside of state custody at all. At least a couple of the speakers picked up a theme that Watson had hinted at – that Cooley would be in danger out in the Eureka populace – and filled it in with darker colors.
“The level of violent crime that goes unpunished in Eureka …” one speaker said.
The only member of the public to speak on Cooley’s behalf was his grandfather, Joseph Herrara. He and his wife, Cooley’s grandmother, have been at each of the recent hearings, and have always spoken up for their grandson.
“Our grandson, Josh Cooley – I’ve known him since he was born,” Herrara said. “I know he’s not a sexually violent predator … We know that he would not reoffend. We as a family will always stick with him.”
After public testimony, the attorneys in the room – Deputy DA Stacey Eads arguing against the placement, Megan O’Connell of the Alternate Conflict Counsel’s office arguing for Cooley – were invited to give their final arguments. Eads reiterated much of what the public had said, adding that the transient motel plan seemed designed to get around some provisions of California law concerning sex offender registration. But O’Connell launched a very forceful argument on her client’s behalf. She began by underlining the fact that the law prefers such offenders to be returned to their “county of domicile” for a reason. Imagine Humboldt County were asked to take in a sexually violent predator from Tehama County. Why should we expect that Tehama’s reaction to receiving Cooley to be any different?
“This is our responsibility,” O’Connell said. “It is our responsibility to take back into the fold Mr. Cooley.”
Furthermore, she said, the community’s fears about bringing Cooley back were at least somewhat unfounded, given Liberty Healthcare’s record. The company has a 100% success rate, she said – its sexual violent predator clients have never reoffended. Liberty would provide in-person, 24/7 monitoring of Cooley during the initial period of release, she said, and throughout the period of his release, any infraction whatsoever – failure to appear for required appointments, for example, would send him straight back to Coalinga.
But Feeney, somewhat surprisingly, sided for the third time with the citizens, despite being under a two-year-old order from the appellate court to find an acceptable home for Cooley, and despite his own suggestion, just three weeks ago, that the motel plan as the least worst possible option to fulfill that order. After establishing with a Liberty Healthcare representative in the room that the company generally preferred permanent placements to transient ones, he rejected the site on those grounds, and asked the representative to reactivate talks with the landowner who is willing to house Cooley there.
“I can now say I think we’ve exhausted placement here in the county of Humboldt,” Feeney said. “Therefore I’m requesting Liberty Healthcare to find placement for Mr. Cooley outside Humboldt County.”
But O’Connell said that the company was, in fact, still pursuing a permanent location in Humboldt County that would fulfill Feeney’s criteria, and that it had a particular lead that could come available very soon. She said that the company would know about that within three weeks.
So Feeney had his clerk set two new dates on the matter. On Monday, May 24, at 8:30 a.m., there will be a status hearing, at which point the company will presumably know whether or not this new Humboldt location, whose neighborhood was not named, will actually be a possibility. On July 19 at 8:30 a.m. there’ll be a different hearing about the Tehama location. We’ll see if any Tehama County residents show up to protest.
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