California officials try for a third time since 2021 to place sexually violent predator

For the third time in recent years, officials are considering placing Merle Wakefield, a sexually violent predator, in a San Diego County community — this time in Poway.

Wakefield’s placement has been a challenge, with one proposed location in Mount Helix garnering swift and vocal criticism from nearby residents in 2021 and another getting rescinded later that year so Wakefield could receive more treatment.

This week, a new home was proposed for him at 15720 Sycamore Canyon Road, north of the Goodan Ranch preserve. Strong opposition is already building.

Merle Wade Wakefield, 67, has been recommended by the California Department of State Hospitals for placement at a home at 15720 Sycamore Canyon Road in Poway. (San Diego County Sheriff’s Department) Courtesy of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department

If approved, Wakefield, 67, would become the eighth sexually violent predator to be housed in a San Diego County community.

A hearing to discuss the suggested placement has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 9 in Department 1704 with San Diego Superior Court Judge Yvonne Campos. Public comments will be accepted until July 22 via email at sdsafe@sdsheriff.org, over the phone at (858) 583-7238 or by mail addressed to the SVP Release/SAFE Task Force at 9425 Chesapeake Drive, San Diego, CA, 92123.

Depending on the court’s ruling, comments may be accepted during the August hearing, as well.

Community members and elected officials didn’t wait to object.

Poway Mayor Steve Vaus said Wakefield’s placement would be a “ticking time bomb” as the proposed home is close to several horse facilities where women and girls often train.

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“Poway will stand together to say: Not here, Not now, Not ever!” he said of the location.

Resident Amanda Corona who lives on a street near the proposed location, said in an email that an elementary school, popular trail heads and parks are all a mile or two near Wakefield’s suggested address. She said the placement would pose risks “to our community’s safety, especially to our children and families who frequent these areas.”

The proposal was also criticized by both county Supervisor Joel Anderson and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, whose districts encompass Poway.

“California’s state government continues to force these predators into residential areas alongside parents, children, and seniors,” Issa said. “There is a far better solution than the current broken system that seeks to compel communities to accept the relocation of dozens of these violent predators.”

In November, Issa introduced the Stopping Sexually Violent Predators Act.

The bill makes changes to an existing law — the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — and, if passed, would effectively ban the placement of sexually violent predators by prohibiting states from spending federal taxpayer dollars on people with that designation outside a correctional or secure medical facility.

Most, if not all, sexually violent predators receive federally funded medical care, and by limiting where states can administer that care, the law makes it much less likely, if not impossible, for placements in communities to be made.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, Wakefield was convicted in 1981 of committing lewd acts with a minor under 14. In 1990, Wakefield was convicted of rape by means of force, violence or fear. He went to prison in both cases.

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In 1998, he was classified by the state as a sexually violent predator and sent to a state hospital, where he had the option of participating in a treatment program aimed at curbing his criminal urges.

To be classified by the state as a sexually violent predator, or SVP, a person has to have been convicted of a violent sex crime against at least one victim and be diagnosed with a condition that makes that person likely to re-offend. The designation is reserved for less than 1 percent of the state’s sexual offender population and means those people can be committed to state hospitals long after serving their prison terms.

In December 2020, a judge granted Wakefield’s request for a conditional release under strict supervision. Soon after, Liberty Healthcare, the company contracted to supervise Wakefield and other SVPs, proposed a home in Mount Helix. A judge shot down the suggestion, saying at the time that the site was not appropriate given the area’s density and the home’s proximity to children.

A second location was proposed in Borrego Springs, but before Wakefield could be placed, Liberty requested he complete additional treatment, and the location was abandoned.

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In March 2022, the District Attorney’s Office petitioned for Wakefield’s conditional release to be rescinded. That motion was denied.

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