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Panel saw risk 'escalating'

ST. PAUL - Minnesota Corrections Department experts privately worried convicted rapist Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. would commit new and more violent crimes after he was released from prison last year, according to documents obtained by the Pioneer Press.

ST. PAUL - Minnesota Corrections Department experts privately worried convicted rapist Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. would commit new and more violent crimes after he was released from prison last year, according to documents obtained by the Pioneer Press.

Rodriguez remained untreated for his sexual aggression and would likely be released into an "unstable" environment that "may actually encourage further criminal behavior," according to a confidential review of his case the experts wrote three months before he completed his sentence.

Despite those and other misgivings, the five-member panel didn't question a decision two years earlier that Rodriguez wasn't so dangerous that they should recommend he be committed to a state institution for treatment.

Five months after getting out of prison in May 2003, Rodriguez, who was living in his hometown of Crookston, allegedly abducted 22-year-old UND student Dru Sjodin from the Columbia Mall parking in Grand Forks. Her body was found in April near Crookston.

Although the Rodriguez case has prompted the Minnesota Department of Corrections to change the way it evaluates sex offenders, officials with the agency have said they found nothing improper in Rodriguez's release.

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Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian has said that little about the inmate's life in prison indicated he might be a danger that, she said, was why a psychologist didn't refer the case to a county attorney to have Rodriguez committed under the state's Dangerous Persons Act.

Prison psychologists "can't predict human behavior," Fabian said.

But a psychologist who oversaw the Corrections Department's commitment review process for five years said the agency had in the past referred to prosecutors for commitment inmates less dangerous than Rodriguez.

"That's why we err on the side of referrals. Who wouldn't err on the side of safety? That's a no-brainer for most of us," said Scott Johnson, who was the agency's civil commitment review coordinator from 1995 to 2000.

"Look at the cost here: The cost is you've got a dead female who didn't have to be dead. That's the reality of it," said Johnson.

Rodriguez has maintained his innocence in the Sjodin case. He is being held in the Cass County Jail in Fargo, awaiting trial on a federal charge of kidnapping leading to death. The Justice Department is considering whether to seek the death penalty.

Corrections officials have said privacy laws prohibit them from discussing the details leading up to Rodriguez's release from prison. "We're not going to speak to this specific case," said Harley Nelson, the agency's deputy commissioner.

History

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In 1980, Rodriguez was sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted kidnapping and first-degree assault. He allegedly tried to kidnap a Crookston woman, then stabbed her when she resisted.

After Rodriguez was arrested in Sjodin's disappearance, the Corrections Department faced a flood of criticism from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Attorney General Mike Hatch, legislators and others who believed he should have been referred to a county attorney for possible commitment.

Under the Dangerous Persons Act passed by the Legislature in 1994, a prosecutor can ask a court to declare someone mentally ill or a danger to the public. If the court agrees, the person can be kept locked up indefinitely.

The decision not to refer Rodriguez to a county attorney had been made in 2001 by a psychologist at the Corrections Department's St. Paul headquarters. He wrote in a "Civil Commitment Referral Determination" that the inmate had aged, and "Statistically, we know that as offenders age, they tend to commit fewer crimes."

Panel weighs in

But nearly two years later and three months before Rodriguez was to be released a five-member panel known as the End of Confinement Review Committee reached a different conclusion. The team predicted the inmate would commit new and more violent crimes upon release.

In a "Risk Assessment Report" dated Jan. 23, 2003, the committee wrote:

"Offender is unlikely to have a stable, well-supervised living arrangement in a location which minimizes his access to potential victims (based on his pattern of offending); offender's history of social and/or familial relationships is unlikely to support an offense-free lifestyle or may encourage further criminal behavior."

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The report said that Rodriguez had "numerous and unsuccessful sex offender treatment experiences" and that he had even committed a sexual assault while enrolled in a treatment program. That he refused sex offender treatment or a psychological evaluation is also noted throughout his prison file.

The committee said his past crimes included "severe" and "gratuitous" violence with "sadistic characteristics," and members believed that his "willingness to use force may be escalating in severity."

The committee included a prison supervisor, a caseworker, a psychologist with experience treating sex offenders, a law enforcement officer and a victim services representative.

The team determines which of three "risk levels" sex offenders should be assigned before they are released. A Level 1 offender has the least probability of committing new crimes, while a Level 3 offender is considered the most dangerous.

The committee unanimously named Rodriguez a Level 3. Statistically, Level 3 offenders commit new crimes at twice the rate of other sex offenders.

Because of that increased risk, state law mandates that the release of a Level 3 offender must be accompanied by extensive community notification. But committee members said that in Rodriguez's case, the notification laws wouldn't be enough to protect the public.

Because his crimes were spontaneous and he chose his victims at random, "The nature of the offender's victim pool suggests a need for broader notification of the public than that permitted," wrote Doug Appelgren, the committee's chairman and a corrections supervisor.

Appelgren and other members of the committee did not return calls for comment or declined comment. A Corrections Department spokeswoman said the department would not provide them for interviews.

Although the committee's job is to assign an inmate a risk level, corrections officials said nothing prohibits panel members from questioning whether a commitment referral should be made. Bill Donnay, interim director of the department's Risk Assessment and Community Notification Unit, said he wasn't aware of that happening, though.

But Johnson, who reviewed more than 850 commitment referrals in his years with the department, said such committees had sent cases back in the past when they thought a psychologist erred in not recommending commitment.

"Once a decision was made to not seek a referral, that was not cast in stone," he said. "There were cases when we made a last-minute referral when we got new information."

He said the concerns the committee expressed about Rodriguez could have prompted such a review. "They had more than enough information to raise an eyebrow, yet nobody did anything with it," he said.

After Rodriguez was arrested, Fabian decreed that the department would begin referring all Level 3 sex offenders to county attorneys for possible commitment.

Fabian declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. But in an e-mail to the Pioneer Press, she said statements in an End of Confinement Review Committee's report weren't predictions of an inmate's behavior, but were "part of the process used to determine the offender's community notification risk level."

She wrote the report "is provided to authorities for their information and management of the offender in the community."

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