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Probation Reports: What we can learn from the 'most important' documents in the criminal justice system

Two young people gunned down in the middle of the night at a house party in Arcata. A beloved priest tortured and bludgeoned to death in his Eureka rectory. Two men killed execution-style in a home in a nice, quiet neighborhood of Eureka.

Each of these crimes stilled the local community, capturing waves of media attention and sending chills of fear and uncertainty through residents who have struggled to make sense of these violent acts. Probation reports recently unsealed by the Humboldt County Superior Court at the prodding of the Journal shed new light on the defendants in each of these high-profile cases, and help put the allegations against each of them into a larger context. The documents also raise questions about the paths that each defendant has taken through the criminal justice system.

Since shortly after St. Bernard's Pastor Father Eric Freed was found dead on New Year's Day, the Journal has been asking the court to unseal probation reports (see sidebar). Daniel Macallair, the executive director of the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, says the importance of these reports simply cannot be overstated.

"It's probably the single most important document in the criminal justice system," Macallair says. "Roughly 90 percent of the time, judges follow the sentencing recommendation that's contained in the probation department's pre-sentence report." But the report does far more than affect sentencing, Macallair says. It follows the defendant through the corrections system, dictating where and how they will be incarcerated and what services they will receive, drawing a kind of road map to rehabilitation. In Macallair's words, it becomes a "defining document" and one of paramount importance.

The following is a look at what makes up a pre-sentencing investigation probation report, what role the documents play in our criminal justice system and what they tell us about the pending murder cases against Bodhi Tree, Gary Lee Bullock and Vincent Earnest Sanchez.

Bodhi Tree

If you've been following the case against Bodhi Tree, the 28-year-old preparing to stand trial on charges that he shot and killed two young people at an Arcata house party, you know the basics.

You know Tree had been released from state prison just six weeks prior to the morning of May 18, 2013, when gunshots rang out before dawn on Eye Street, leaving 18-year-old Christina Schwartz and 27-year-old Allan "Sunshine" Marcet dead. You probably also know that Tree is facing a charge of attempted murder stemming from the ambush shooting of a Eureka man a couple of days earlier. And, if you've been paying close attention, you might know that Tree was living in a clean and sober house at the time of the shootings and that attorneys recently began the process of selecting a jury for Tree's trial.

But unless you've read the pre-sentence investigation probation report from Tree's 2011 arrest, you probably don't know that he's a paranoid schizophrenic prone to substituting his medication for pints of alcohol. You're likely not aware that Tree suffered three traumatic injuries before becoming a ward of the court at the age of 15, or that he has 13 prior convictions on his record. And, you're almost assuredly unaware that the report concludes Tree presented a high risk of reoffending, particularly of committing violent offenses, and ominously quotes a prior case report as follows: "Given his mental illness, proclivity to drink, and anti-social mentality, he should be supervised very intensely..."

The 2011 report details the facts surrounding Tree's Oct. 4, 2011 arrest, documenting every turn in the high-speed chase that saw Tree — after consuming more than a pint of whiskey — reach speeds of 100 mph in his friend's Lexus as he attempted to flee police. The report notes how Tree seemed to attempt to run down officers who got in his way, and how he crashed the vehicle multiple times before, when the vehicle could run no more, an officer had to break its driver's side window in order to pull Tree into custody.

But the report also works to put the offense into the context of the life of a young man besieged by a host of challenges. Tree was born in Garberville on July 5, 1985, the elder of Warren Edward Jones and Ama Patricia Wickham's two children. Tree was hospitalized twice as a young child, according to the report, once after stepping into a bucket of boiling water as a toddler and again after sustaining severe dog bites. In 1998, when Tree was just 13, his mother died of an aneurism, according to the report. The impact on Tree seems to have been devastating.

He turned to drinking and within months was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Then came a string of law enforcement contacts, beginning with a curfew violation in 1999. Arrests for burglary, being drunk in public and petty theft followed. After being named a ward of the court at the age of 15, Tree absconded to Alaska, where he was arrested for drunk driving.

Tree was arrested as an adult for the first time in 2003 at the age of 18, when a family returned to its Fickle Hill Road home to find it vandalized with him inside, "disoriented, confused and delusional," according to the report. Tree was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in the case, and sent to Atascadero State Hospital, where he was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and given psychotropic medications for the first time. Tree managed to stay out of trouble for several years while on felony probation, but was arrested again in 2007 after he assaulted a developmentally delayed acquaintance who he accused of disrespecting him. Tree "struck the victim with a closed fist approximately 20 times about his head and upper body" before stealing $100 from him, according to the report.

Again — after a stint in a state mental hospital — Tree was granted probation and stayed out of trouble for a few years, until that night in 2011 when he decided to take the keys to his friend's Lexus and get behind the wheel. A couple of months after that arrest, on Dec. 8, 2011, Tree sat down in a room of the Humboldt County jail to be interviewed by his probation officer.

"I don't want to keep coming here," Tree said, according to the report. "I want to change my life ... I've been on probation since I was 14. I'm used to having somebody tell me what to do ... I need to figure out what I'm going to do next time I get off probation."

Tree was ultimately sentenced to three years in state prison, but served only a bit more than a year behind bars before being released back into the Eureka community in early April 2013 as a part of California's prison realignment plan. Placed under the post-release community supervision of the Humboldt County Probation Department, Tree was living in a clean and sober house on Eureka's I Street, according to testimony during Tree's preliminary hearing.

But the extent to which Tree was being monitored is unclear. Testimony at the hearing indicated Tree drank heavily on at least seven occasions in late April and early May of 2013. On one of those occasions, a group of men beat Tree up, leaving him with a pair of black eyes after he allegedly groped their female companion, according to the testimony. On six other occasions, Tree drank until he passed out at the Eye Street residence in Arcata.

Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano says the law prohibits him from speaking publicly about specific cases, so he was unable to answer any questions directly relating to Tree. However, speaking generally, Damiano says there's an inherent challenge in dealing with human beings — a little thing called free will.

"The fact that the services exist is one thing, whether a defendant takes advantage of those services and participates in them is another," he says. "Some folks, the moment they get released from custody, they're in the wind ... The fact is we are dealing with some pretty serious criminals in post-release supervision and mandatory supervision, and they're going to do crimes. That's what criminals do."

The rise of probation

The man universally heralded as the "father of probation" in the United States, wasn't a judge or even a lawyer. He was a shoemaker.

Born in Massachusetts in 1785, John Augustus was doing well for himself in 1829 — he'd moved to Boston and owned a successful boot-making business. He'd also joined the Washington Total Abstinence Society, which many credit as the reason for his interest in the Boston court system.

Believing alcohol abusers could be rehabilitated through understanding, kindness and guidance, Augustus attended a police court in 1841 with the aim of bailing out a "common drunkard," according to a report by the New York City Probation Department. The offender, believed to be the nation's first probationer, was ordered to appear back in court three weeks later for sentencing and returned a sober man, thanks to Augustus' guidance. On the man's sentencing date, Augustus delivered what is believed to be the nation's first pre-sentence investigation report, detailing the defendant's age, background and criminal history. He then told the court of the actions he'd taken to sober the man up and his plan for finding him both housing and employment.

Augustus spent the next 18 years essentially as a volunteer probation officer, "showing a reformer's zeal and dogged persistence." He'd research a defendant's history and, if he thought he could be rehabilitated, would bail him out and provide a litany of services, helping to find jobs and places to stay. According to the New York City Probation Department, Augustus had bailed out 1,946 men by 1858. Of those, only 10 forfeited their bond, "a remarkable accomplishment by any standard."

Many felt the nation's first probation law — passed by Massachusetts Legislature in 1878 — could be attributed to Augustus' efforts. Once that first law came onto the books, the system spread gradually throughout the country. California developed a statewide probation system in 1903, and the National Probation Act was passed in 1925.

Almost from the beginning, the pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report has played a central role. According to an article by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a reformation movement in the 1870s advocated an individualized approach toward rehabilitating criminals, giving rise to the era of indeterminate sentencing. In stark contrast to the mandatory minimum sentences that rose to prominence in the 1980s, indeterminate sentencing left almost total discretion to the judge, who was supposed to dole out sentences with an eye toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.

PSI reports of the era reflected this and were largely focused on the offender's background, psychosocial history and the context of the underlying offense, all focusing on what steps would be necessary to rehabilitate the defendant and successfully reintegrate him or her into society. In 1977, California switched to a determinate sentencing model, offering three tiers of penalty for each felony offense. PSI reports began to change as well, Macallair says, becoming more focused on offenses and less so on offenders.

Gary Lee Bullock

A little over a year before he was arrested for the killing of Eric Freed and became a household name in Humboldt County, Gary Bullock was pulled over near Garberville by a California Highway Patrol officer for not having proper license plates on his car. The officer determined he was driving under the influence, placed him under arrest and searched him, finding a plastic bag containing a gram of cocaine in Bullock's pocket.

Bullock's arrest for possession on Nov. 30, 2012 was widely reported in the aftermath of Freed's killing, as was the fact that he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation. What hasn't been reported and what wouldn't be known without looking at Bullock's PSI report is that the misdemeanor plea agreement only came to be after another fell apart.

According to the report, Bullock initially agreed to plead as charged under a diversion program made possible by section 1000 of the California Penal Code. Under a diversion program, a defendant pleads guilty and agrees to enter a court-ordered treatment program. If he successfully completes the program and stays out of trouble, the conviction disappears from his record. But, to be eligible, a defendant can't have a prior drug conviction on his record.

Bullock's probation report found that he pleaded guilty in 2005 to a federal charge of conspiring to manufacture and distribute marijuana and subsequently served more than a year in federal prison. But, while it found Bullock ineligible for diversion, the report noted that drug treatment was in order. The report detailed Bullock's admitting to a pattern of on-and-off-again cocaine use over the decades leading up to his arrest. The report also details that Bullock said he engaged in a pattern of opiate usage, going through prolonged periods of heavy Vicodin and Norco use, but that he denied ever having withdrawal symptoms with the drugs. "This writer believes that client may have minimized his Vicodin and Norco use in the interview," the report states.

Born in Santa Barbara as the third of five siblings, Bullock moved to Humboldt County when he was 5 years old, after his parents divorced. At the time of the probation report, he and three of his siblings were living in Redway, as were his father, mother and step-father. In 1999, Bullock married and later had twin daughters. Bullock was employed as a truck driver for years, according to the report, but had recently become unemployed after suffering an injury on the job. He suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression and was taking Celexa, which is commonly used to treat depression.

Within days of the 2011 arrest, Bullock posted bail and enrolled in the Singing Trees alcohol and drug treatment program. According to the report, he stayed for two weeks before checking out. "It is recommended that Mr. Bullock be referred to the County Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Programs for outpatient treatment," the report concludes. "As Mr. Bullock attended only two weeks of residential treatment it would benefit him to participate in outpatient treatment group sessions to acquire the recovery skills necessary to maintain sobriety."

Five days after the probation report was presented to the court and Bullock was denied the diversion program, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office reached a plea agreement under which it dismissed the felony charge and Bullock pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to three years' probation but was not ordered to undergo an alcohol and other drug assessment or enroll in treatment. A little over eight months later, on Dec. 31, 2013, he was picked up for public intoxication after a pattern of erratic behavior in Redway. He reportedly told the arresting officer he was on heroin and methamphetamine.

As has been highly publicized, Bullock was held for about eight hours until after midnight on Jan. 1, 2014 and then released from jail. He is then alleged to have broken into the rectory of St. Bernard's Parrish, where police believe he tortured and murdered Freed.

A question of rehabilitation

Sitting in Ramone's coffee shop on Harrison Avenue on a recent Monday morning, Damiano, the Humboldt County probation chief, described how his department develops intervention and supervision plans for the approximately 1,700 offenders it is tasked with reintegrating into society.

The process, Damiano explains, begins with a risk and needs assessment that is a part of the PSI report. The actuarial is designed to assess both an offenders' risk of reoffending, and also to diagnose the services he or she needs to become a productive, law-abiding citizen. The process seems part science, part art.

Damiano's department oversees two types of offenders: those remanded to county supervision as a part of California's new post-release community supervision program and those on formal probation, many of them former state parolees. Under California's new realignment laws, Damiano says he has a plethora of resources to work with the 250 or so people on post-release community supervision — behavioral health staff, psychiatric nurses, mental health clinicians, vocational counselors and more. On the other end of the spectrum, Damiano says he has virtually no resources to treat the 1,500 or so offenders on formal probation. There's a small bit of money for alcohol and drug services, Damiano says, and he gets some funding to help sex offenders find housing and mental health treatment. But for the vast majority of those probationers, Damiano says, there's little his department can do other than try to supervise them, engage them and refer them to a variety of community-based services.

The system relies heavily on risk assessments, which determine the amount of supervision a probationer is to receive. Those designated as having a "moderate" risk of reoffending are assigned to a probation officer at a ratio of about 150 to 1. For "high" risk probationers, the ratio drops to about 50 to 1, though Damiano cautions that number will likely jump to 70 or 80 to 1 under next year's budget. The idea, Damiano explains, is that low-risk offenders are folks who have community support systems and coping skills and are generally well on their way. The high-risk offenders are the ones who need constant nudging and guidance to stay out of trouble. They need to learn new thought patterns, new habits and new skills. "You have to get them to see things a different way," he says. A huge part of their success ultimately will depend on a probation officer's ability to develop a relationship with them, Damiano says.

"The challenge is we're dealing with human beings," he says. "You can't make a horse drink the water. You put them into positions to drink the water and hope." Probation officers, Damiano says, are constantly engaged in a balancing act, coming up with intervention plans that figure out how to support an offender when he or she "falls down" and give him or her the best chance at a positive outcome, while at the same time protecting the community.

A huge key in the process, Damiano says, is a proper risk and needs assessment, a process that begins with the PSI report. "It's important so we can look at the whole person because crimes don't occur in a vacuum," he says.

In a recent phone interview from his office at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Macallair says he has mixed feelings about PSI reports being made public. California law provides that the reports are open for public review for 60 days after a defendant is sentenced and then they are placed under seal. There's good reason for this Macallair says, noting it's the state's attempt to balance the public's right to know with the interests of ultimately rehabilitating an offender. "There's a lot of long-term consequences to having unlimited access to documents with this kind of personal information in them," Macallair says. "If our purpose is reintegrating a person back into the community and back into society, then having a tremendous amount of information out there about the details of their personal lives and their offense can be counterproductive. There can also be residual effects that impact not just the offender, but the non-offender who just has the misfortune of being related to this person."

But California law also provides that when someone is charged with a new crime, their past probation reports are once again open to the public. Macallair says he understands the reasoning behind this as there's a host of things the community can learn from reviewing the reports.

Vincent Earnest Sanchez

On March 26, Eurekans sat in shock for the second time in 2014 as details trickled out about another act of violence. Police had found two men — Freshwater Farms owner Rick Storre, 60, and Lance Delbert Henry, 25 — each dead of a single gunshot wound to the head in Storre's Eureka home.

The suspect in the case, 28-year-old Vincent Earnest Sanchez, Henry's half-brother, was detained at the scene, where he'd apparently stayed since allegedly shooting the two men 24 to 48 hours earlier. News reports of the killings left a host of questions in their wake.

A probation report in Sanchez's 2009 burglary case answers some and raises many more.

Sanchez, who served in the National Guard and was deployed to Egypt in 2005, was arrested on Jan. 15, 2009 in what has to be one of the stranger crimes in recent memory. Officers responded to a report of sounds of breaking glass and metallic banging coming from the Carson Mansion to find a vehicle parked askew out front. While checking the car's license plate, an officer heard a nois e coming from the historic building's front porch and observed Sanchez walking toward him "at a brisk pace," according to the report. "(Sanchez) mumbled something about the guy in the back being a pedophile and 'king rune,'" the report states. "He fidgeted where he stood and seemed to be experiencing some kind of inner psychological conflict. (Sanchez) would periodically look left or right as if he had heard something that the officer was not seeing or hearing."

Sanchez was found to be in possession of a sword and a hatchet, and a subsequent investigation revealed he'd completely destroyed a phone line box and electrical panel outside the mansion before using his hatchet to break in. Once inside, according to the report, Sanchez simply walked through the building, using his hatchet to force his way into locked rooms, causing an estimated $10,000 in damage in the process.

In an interview with his probation officer, Sanchez later explained his actions. "He said he was bored and it had been a gloomy day," the report states. "He said he had always wanted to see the Carson Mansion. The day before the present matter, he had been turned away and told he had to be a member of the Ingomar Club to enter the building. He said he returned the next day. ... When asked why he would so such a thing, he stated, 'I was probably just too stoned.'"

The report notes that while Sanchez was found to have no history of mental illness, he was found unfit to stand trial and remanded to a state mental hospital for 63 days because he was "suffering from a substance-induced psychotic disorder due to his long history of substance use, including cannabis, alcohol, cocaine and inhalants."

Born on April 30, 1985 in Vallejo, the only child of Daniel Sanchez and Denise Henry, Sanchez was raised by his mother in Eureka with three half-siblings. Sanchez told his probation officer, according to the report, that his stepfather was physically abusive. At 16, he moved out of his mother's home and in with his maternal grandfather, where he stayed until he turned 18. At the time of his arrest, the report notes, Sanchez was being employed under the table by Storre, earning $10 an hour for landscaping work — a job he'd held for nine months.

While deeming Sanchez a suitable candidate for probation, the report warns that he "would appear to be in danger of future criminal activity without substance abuse and mental health intervention." Sanchez was sentenced to time served and three years probation in the case.

Into public view

Collectively, these recently unsealed reports raise a host of questions, most centering on the topics of substance abuse treatment, mental health intervention and community supervision.

But back at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Macallair said it's important to recognize that missed opportunities for rehabilitation and intervention can be symptoms of larger failings than those of any individual department. Like the crimes of the offenders they work with, probation departments' performances need to be viewed in the proper context, he says.

"It's the largest piece of the criminal justice system, and yet, I think it's been woefully underfunded for at least a generation," he says. But, Macallair says there's a lot that can be learned from a public review of a defendant's past probation reports.

"One of the problems with confidentiality is it gets invoked, and it's sometimes used as a vehicle to protect the system from its own failings," he says. "With these reports out there, you can say, 'So you diagnosed this person as a mentally ill substance abuser? Well what did the system do to address those issues?'

"I think it's important that the criminal justice system, like any other system, be held to a high level of scrutiny and accountability, and I don't think you can do that without giving a high level of access to information."

The Case for Access

For the last couple of months, the Journal has been working to access pre-sentencing investigation reports prepared by the Humboldt County Probation Department in the prior cases of some high-profile local defendants.

California Penal Code Section 1203.05 provides that any probation report filed with the court in a criminal case is a public document, open to be viewed by anyone, for 60 days from the date the defendant is sentenced in the case. After that, the document goes under seal and can only be reopened via a petition and court order.

It seems most of us in Humboldt County — local attorneys, court employees, reporters and even the probation department itself — thought that was the end of it. But a closer reading of the statute indicates that probation reports from a defendant's prior criminal cases once again become public if the defendant is charged with a new crime, according to legal sources. The Journal asked a number of local attorneys to review the statute and ran it by the California First Amendment Coalition. All agreed the documents should be opened to the public.

A review of the statute's legislative history seemed to reinforce the idea that the California State Legislature's intent was to reopen these documents to public view if a defendant was charged with another crime.

Initially, the Humboldt County Superior Court disagreed, so the Journal asked that Judge John Feeney review a specific request to view a probation report from Gary Lee Bullock's 2012 case in light of the fact that Bullock was facing a new criminal complaint. At first, Feeney told the Journal it would have to file a petition seeking a judicial review of the request. But the Journal argued these documents should be presumed public and not subject to the discretion of a judge. Ultimately, the judge agreed and ordered that the report from Bullock's 2012 case be unsealed.

The Journal then reached out to Judge Dale Reinholtsen, who currently sits as the court's presiding judge, requesting that he consider releasing several other defendants' prior reports to the public. Further, the Journal asked him to review the court's policies and consider taking steps to make these documents more readily available as they should be presumed public.

In response to the Journal's request, Reinholtsen indicated he agreed and ordered that the newspaper be given access to the requested documents. The court's general practice, he said, would be reviewed and was likely only in place because no one had ever pressed the issue.

Humboldt County Superior Court CEO Kerri Keenan said the court is currently reviewing its policy and may announce some changes in the near future. In the meantime, Keenan said anyone wishing to review a current defendant's prior probation report should submit a request in writing to the court records office. She said the request will then be reviewed by a judge, who will make a determination.

Moving forward, Keenan said she hopes the court will settle on a streamlined and consistent practice. "Sometimes it's helpful when someone raises a question that makes us re-examine what we're currently doing," she said.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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