Ninja bandit's impending release ignites fear

One man still shakes when he hears the rattle of his blinds, worried that an intruder could be creeping inside. One woman has nightmares of her father covered with blood, his teeth knocked out. Another pines for a stolen tableware service for 24 that she never could replace.

Many victims of "ninja bandit" Robert Johnson -- who was convicted in 1986 of 13 felonies ranging from attempted murder to attempted sodomy and robbery -- say they remember Johnson's appearance in their lives as if it were yesterday.

So one Modesto family was shocked in late September to learn, in a phone call from a parole agent, that Johnson was to have been released last week after serving 21 years of a 39-year sentence.

"We thought that 39 years meant 39 years," said one victim. "I was absolutely shocked to hear it was going to be in a week. If we chose to move, if we chose to change our name, if we didn't want to be in Modesto, we didn't have enough time for any of that."

The names of victims interviewed for this article have been withheld for their safety.

Victims of certain crimes usually receive notification of a prisoner's release well in advance so they can file reports requesting that the felon not be placed closer than 35 miles to them, among other considerations. But the agency that contacts victims had lost touch with Johnson's, so it took a proactive parole agent to alert them.

Victims scrambled to object to the release and prepared for what seemed inevitable. Some rushed to fix the alarm on their house. An anonymous, terrified phone call came in to The Bee. Someone else wrote a letter to the newspaper's editor. Victims who hadn't spoken in 20 years reached out to each other for support and action. And at least five letters were sent to Sacramento detailing the trauma Johnson's acts caused.

As victims began to call parole agents and the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services, Johnson's pending release was shifted from Stanislaus County to Fresno County. A 45-day hold was placed on his release.

And Katie James, manager of the victim services unit, requested a special assessment of Johnson, to see if he fits the diagnosis of a sexually violent predator.

This designation could allow a Stanislaus County court to confine Johnson indefinitely to a state-run program for predatory sexually violent offenders.

Johnson was assessed several years ago for this designation and was not found to fit the diagnosis, James said. Several people familiar with Johnson's case explained that the psychologists who analyzed Johnson did not have access to his complete history, so James requested a second assessment by the Department of Mental Health.

If Johnson again does not meet the criteria, he could be paroled within six weeks. He has been classified as a high-risk sex offender by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Jenni Avila, parole administrator for six counties from Tuolumne to Tulare. Johnson would live in Fresno County and be required to register his address with the state. His photo, convictions and home address would be listed on the Megan's law Web site. He would wear a global positioning system tracking device and likely would have a curfew with other stringent conditions.

But release of any kind is deeply unsettling for Johnson's victims and other area residents, including a family who later moved into a house Johnson had targeted. In 1985, a victim said, Johnson watched the home for six months and knew enough to poison the dog so it wouldn't alert the family to his presence. The new owners, the victim said, installed up- graded windows, a new door and an alarm system, just in case.

"It's extremely stressful," he said. "It's just as stressful today as it was then, knowing he has the possibility of coming back."

Within parolees' rights

But coming back, if paroled, would be Johnson's right, as it is the right of every parolee in the state.

The California Penal Code, section 3003, says that except under special circumstances, an inmate released on parole must return to the county in which he or she last lived. In the case of someone transferred to the Department of Mental Health for the sexually violent predator program, the county court would determine placement upon release. But when someone re-enters society, particularly in more notorious cases, coming home creates a delicate balancing act.

"He or she has a right to live somewhere, that's for sure," said Steve Fama, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit agency that offers free legal services to California prisoners. "For every prisoner having served his sentence, the rule of law provides for the parolee's release back into the community in which he was convicted. But what sometimes happens in these high-profile cases is dangerously close to mob justice."

People concerned for their neighborhoods' safety and property values have gone to extremes to keep parolees out. In one case, residents burned down the house of child rapist Joseph Gallardo in Washington state before he could move in.

Larry Singleton was closer to home. Singleton was convicted of the 1978 kidnapping, rape and attempted murder of 15-year-old Mary Vincent. He drove Vincent, a hitchhiker, from Berkeley to Del Puerto Canyon, in western Stanislaus County. He then raped her, used an ax to cut off both forearms and left her bleeding in a ditch to die.

She survived to testify against him, but Singleton was released in 1987 after serving eight years of a 14-year sentence. When it came time to place him in a community to serve 11 months of parole, city after city protested. Politicians in Rodeo led a demonstration through the streets of the Contra Costa County city.

Singleton ended up living out his parole in a trailer behind the gates of San Quentin State Prison. He moved to Florida, his home state, where a homemade bomb was detonated near his home and a car dealer offered him $5,000 to leave the state, according to published reports.

Singleton later was convicted of the stabbing death of a prostitute in Florida and sentenced to death. In 2002, he died of cancer in a prison hospital.

Convicted sex offender Cary Verse, after participating in the sexually violent predator program, was judged ready for release to Contra Costa County in 2004. He was convicted of raping three teenage boys and a homeless man in the Bay Area between 1988 and 1992. Verse was driven from four Bay Area homes within weeks of his release. An attempt to move him to Merced County prompted heated protest, and that plan was scrapped.

It was reported that he was turned down by 90 landlords before a Bay Point family offered him the cottage behind their house near Pittsburg.

"On the one hand, you have somebody who's paid his debt to society," said Sam Torres, a professor of criminal justice at California State University, Long Beach, and a former federal probation officer. "And yet, given his background and his history, there's a clear concern for the protection of the community."

To a certain extent, numerous sex offender laws passed in California since the 1980s have placed the community over the individual, said Torres. With the passage of Megan's law in 2004, sex offenders faced increased notification rules and registration in a statewide database. Jessica's law, passed in 2006, limited their choices of where to live, banishing them from within 2,000 feet of a school or park. And they are watched more and more closely, with lifetime GPS monitoring of new sex felons.

The parole system has a specific and stringent set of rules for sex offenders, said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But it's important to remember, he added, that out of roughly 120,000 people on parole in the state each year, about 10,000 are sex offenders. Only 2,000 to 2,500 fall into the high-risk sexual offender category.

"Sex offenders are under the biggest microscope and shortest leash of any parolees we have," Sessa said, "with a far longer list of requirements."

They can include mandatory counseling, polygraph testing, curfews, GPS tracking and restrictions about whom they see and where they go.

Many of these conditions provide protective measures for communities in which sex offenders live. But, said Sessa, they exist primarily to help sex offenders succeed, make it off parole and not return to prison.

About 70 percent of all parolees in California fail, said Sessa, the highest recidivism rate in the country.

Will be monitored constantly

Johnson faces intense scrutiny in the next six weeks. Whether for his own good or the public good, as a parolee or a mental health patient, he will be monitored constantly.

If paroled, Johnson will be one of hundreds of people who get out of prison each day.

"The focus on the high-profile cases is a pretty shallow approach," said Fama, the prisoners' rights attorney. "They gain the most attention. They lead to the most disturbing results. ... But we ought to focus on what happens to people in prison, who we send to prison and the resources that are available to parolees. Most people get $200 and a bus ride back home. And that hasn't changed in 30 years."

If you have been a victim of a violent crime and don't know whether the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services knows how to find you, call 877-256-6877.

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.