Thursday at the downtown San Diego courthouse, local residents protested the proposed placement of a convicted sex offender in a supervised home in East County, a region officials and residents say has become “a dumping ground” for sex offenders.
Thomas Joseph Cornwell, 41, was convicted in 2008 of two counts of lewd acts on a child under the age of 14 for offenses that occurred in 2006 and 2008, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.
He was sentenced to eight years in state prison and later committed to Coalinga State Hospital after being declared a Sexually Violent Predator or SVP, a designation for those convicted of sexually violent offenses and diagnosed with a mental disorder — pedophilic disorder, in Cornwell’s case — that makes them a danger to the public.
Cornwell later successfully petitioned for the Conditional Release Program or CONREP, which resulted in a trial that led San Diego County Superior Court Judge Albert T. Harutunian III to grant his release.
The Department of State Hospitals has proposed that Cornwell be placed at a home at 2135 McCain Valley Road in Jacumba Hot Springs, a location officials say has previously housed Sexually Violent Predators.
After hearing public comments Thursday, Harutunian took the matter of Cornwell’s placement at the Jacumba Hot Springs home under submission and will submit a written ruling at a later time. Cornwell was not present for the hearing.
As with other SVPs, like Alvin Ray Quarles — the “Bolder Than Most Rapist” who was approved for conditional release and placement in late 2018 — the decision has generated backlash from local residents and community leaders.
Alice Keyser, who lives in nearby Boulevard, urged Harutunian to seek another location to house Cornwell.
“East County is overflowing with sexual predators,” Keyser said. “The citizens there are up to their gills with sexual predators, danger, and the threat of them recommitting crimes there.”
Keyser said she and other residents don’t feel safe and that the conditional release program does not sufficiently limit the SVPs from escaping their housing situations by removing or tampering with GPS monitoring devices they’re required to wear.
Keyser related two incidents in which she said SVPs escaped from housing, one of whom sexually assaulted a 70-year-old woman, though her accounts could not be corroborated by officials present at Thursday’s hearing.
Defense attorney Solomon Chang said Liberty Healthcare — which monitors SVPs within the conditional release program — has a “zero-percent recidivism rate” and that SVPs have only been returned to state hospitals in the past for “minor violations” that don’t include any sexual misconduct.
Keyser suggested housing SVPs on the grounds of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa — which previously housed SVPs in trailers on the prison grounds — rather than continuing to house SVPs in East County, which she said is gaining a reputation as the “Land of Predators.”
Jeff Collins, chief of staff for county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, said 11 out of San Diego County’s 14 SVPs in conditional release programs have been housed in the East County towns of Jacumba Hot Springs, Boulevard or Campo.
“We feel this is incredibly harsh and unfair treatment and simply put, enough is enough,” Collins said.
Jacob, who represents East County and has routinely protested the release of sexually violent predators in the area, said in a statement:
“Our communities should not be used as dumping grounds for the sickest of the sick. I will continue to press state officials to end this cruel practice of concentrating sexually violent predators in rural East County. As far as I’m concerned, they gave up their right to freedom when they preyed on our young and most vulnerable. They don’t belong in any town. They belong behind bars.”
— City News Service
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