After strong opposition from San Bernardino County law enforcement and residents, a Ventura County superior court judge decided Thursday not to relocate a convicted rapist and child molester to Joshua Tree, authorities said.
The decision prolongs the nearly year-long process to find a home for Ross Leo Wollschlager, 56 who had been convicted in the 1980s of raping two women and sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl while she slept in her home in Ventura County. He had already served his prison sentence was being held at a state hospital in Coalinga, Fresno County.
Superior Court Judge Nancy Ayers in September had originally ordered to move Wollschlager to Joshua Tree, which immediately drew opposition from law enforcement and residents of the desert community, citing concerns for their safety.
In front of a Ventura County courtroom filled with about 20 Morongo Basin residents and 10 local officials who gave statements before the judge, along with San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and District Attorney’s Office prosecutors, Ayers changed her mind, rescinding her original order.
“We keep our own, we house our own, we’ll monitor our own,” said San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Maureen O’Connell who handled the opposition in court. “But to set a precedent to allow another county to dump them into another county, it will become a repository of sexually violent predators.”
Officials with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Nowhere to go
The issue began in January when Ayers ordered Liberty Healthcare to find a home for Wollschlager in Ventura County. Liberty Healthcare is a private agency that contracts with the Department of State Hospitals to find housing and provide outpatient treatment for people with sexually violent predator status.
During its housing hunt, Liberty Healthcare said it could not find a landlord that would rent out space to Wollschlager, O’Connell said. In March, Ayers decided that due to “extraordinary circumstances, she authorized the agency to start looking elsewhere. The list had eight counties, including Sacramento County, Merced County, San Luis Obispo County, Riverside County, and San Bernardino County.
In August, the agency successfully struck a deal with a property owner in Sacramento County, but due to similar backlash from their community, the landlord bowed out of the agreement, O’Connell said.
Next on the agency’s list was San Bernardino, settling on a home that regularly contracts with Liberty Healthcare in Joshua Tree. Ayers signed off on the relocation in September.
A month later, the San Bernardino County DA’s Office and Sheriff McMahon announced they would oppose the order.
Although the population of the remote community of Joshua Tree is listed in U.S. Census records as only 7,500, there are 200 women and children living within a three-mile radius of the home, McMahon said. And millions of visitors pour into the area to tour Joshua Tree National Park, he added.
O’Connell said that from his home, Wollschlager would have been able to see into about 20 other properties. She also cited concerns of lack of law enforcement resources with only two parole deputies assigned to that area. It would take those deputies about 45 minutes to respond to a potential emergency related to Wollschlager, she said.
In court on Thursday, prosecutors argued that Liberty Healthcare’s inability to find housing in Ventura County should not be considered an “extraordinary circumstance.”
“You didn’t have extraordinary circumstances ’cause you could’ve released him as a transient,” O’Connell said. “Is it ideal? Probably not, nobody likes to hear the word transient. The state doesn’t like it and the public doesn’t like it.”
She said the alternative — placing him in a community he had no familial or job ties to — should not be San Bernardino County’s responsibility.
State Senator Shannon Grove, minority leader of the California State Senate, whose district covers Joshua Tree, had initially joined opposition in October and voiced her praise Thursday.
“The residents of Joshua Tree can breathe a sigh of relief now that the ruling has been determined by Judge Ayers and this convicted rapist will not be living in our community near our families and children,” Grove said in a statement. “I thank Judge Ayers for listening to the concerns of the residents here, understanding their fears, and ruling to not place the convicted felon in this community.”