Merced County allowed a 38-year-old Mexican immigrant, who repeatedly molested and threatened a 5-year-old, to walk right out the front door and disappear, violating a Judge’s Order for the vicious animal to be held without bail. Thanks to a clerical error, instead of the 35-years-to-life in prison he expected, Primitivo Gonzalez was accidentally granted an early release. It’s okay, “he went back to Mexico and is no longer a threat in Merced County,” the Sheriff claims.
Gonzalez had a full eight-day head start before anyone knew he was missing. It was “our screw-up,” Sheriff Vern Warnke admits. He made himself look even more like Barney Fife by telling reporters he knew about the error “within hours.” When challenged on that and pressed for details, he admitted that his statement wasn’t really true and called it “another mistake.”
“Unfortunately I assumed it had been discovered within hours but that was my assumption.” He says he was talking about when he discovered it, hours before talking to reporters. Vern insists the first he heard anything, was when he got a call from Deputy DA Katie Gates, wanting to know where the prisoner was. She just got off the phone with the victim’s family who alerted her Gonzalez was gone. “Finding out from Ms. Gates was when we became aware that anything was wrong because it appeared he’d bailed out properly, we didn’t know a mistake had been made until she notified us.” Gonzalez should not have bailed out at all.
“I was shocked,” Gates relates. “I thought at first the family was mistaken.” The Deputy District Attorney explains a family member of the victim contacted her, saying Gonzalez was no longer in custody. “Nobody expected that this would’ve been possible because the judge had ordered Gonzalez held without bail and he already had pleaded guilty to the violent felony charges.”
Gonzalez pleaded guilty in Court to “two counts of forcible lewd acts upon a child and one count of lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under 14 years of age.” The violent sex crime charges stem from allegations he “molested the young female family member repeatedly over a four-year period beginning when the victim was 5 years old and threatened to beat the child if she told her parents about his abuse.”
Judge Jeanne Schecter ordered Gonzalez “to be held in the Merced County Jail without bail until his Dec. 21 sentencing hearing but jail employees gave him an early Christmas present, wishing him Feliz Navidad by unlocking his cage.
The paperwork didn’t get entered into the computer so when Gonzalez’ brother showed up at the county jail on November 22, at 11:48 a.m., with a bond that cost him $15,000, “Gonzalez was released from custody.” Warnke fumes, “They knew it was an error on our part and they took advantage of it.”
“It was human error on the part of a clerk who didn’t realize there was a second ‘minute order’,” Warnke reflects. “We own it, it was a sheer human error, the clerk feels terrible about it.” Sheriff Warnke admits it does not end there. “It’s not just on the clerk, there was a problem with our systems and now there are checks and balances we’ve put in place to correct that problem.”
Warnke accepts responsibility on behalf of his department. “I apologize to the community for this. It’s on us. There’s just no legitimate excuse for this.” Warnke adds, “It’s our mistake and we’ve taken actions to correct it and are continuing to look at our policies and procedures for any vulnerabilities. This shouldn’t have happened, but it did. It’s very regretful, and I truly and sincerely apologize to the victim and the family because they want to see justice done and I want them to see justice done.”
Warnke justifies not informing the public, until the story was about to break in the news, by insisting his “deputies believe he already crossed the border into Mexico.” He “assumes” safety is not a concern for the community, “because we knew he already was out of the country, we knew he wasn’t going to commit any crimes in our community.” The Sheriff gives no details to support why he is so certain Gonzales slipped back to Mexico but that is where they are looking for him. Warnke tells the community that his “detectives are working to locate exactly where in Mexico Gonzalez may be hiding and plan to work with authorities across the border to capture him.”
Warnke tells the family, “my heart goes out to the victim and we have every intention and are working very hard to bring this guy back and make him pay his debt for the crime he committed. This is not one of those things where ‘oh well he’s gone.’ We’re going to go after him but we’ve got to find him first.”
Based on the Sheriff’s performance so far, looks like the safest place for Gonzalez to hide out would be pushing a lawnmower around Vern’s yard.