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    State fights to block sex offender's freedom

    A jury in Largo, asked to continue his confinement under the Jimmy Ryce Act, hears from three victims.

    By JOUNICE L. NEALY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    LARGO -- For most of the past 29 years, Roberto Valdez has been in prison. The first time he got a chance to be free in 1979, he went to Alabama and committed another rape.

    Now, the 54-year-old has another chance to be free, but prosecutors are fighting to keep Valdez locked away indefinitely in a mental institution because they fear he will rape again.

    Prosecutor Tim Hessinger told a jury on Monday that three medical experts will testify that Valdez is not ready to be released. They will note that he's made some progress, but he's not healthy enough to be a part of society.

    And if Valdez were to be released at the end of the week, he said, there would be no probation officers to check in with, no group meetings he's required to attend and nobody to check on his progress. "There won't be anything," Hessinger said.

    Attorneys for Valdez say he has made enough progress to be released.

    State prosecutors are pursuing the confinement under the state's Jimmy Ryce Act, which is named after a Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered. The act became law in 1999, before Valdez was set to be released.

    It is designed to take the most dangerous predators about to be released from prison and send them to a secure treatment facility until they are deemed safe to return to society.

    Valdez is one of at least 10 sex offenders statewide whom prosecutors want to lock up indefinitely for treatment. If he's ordered to confinement, Valdez will be the first in Pinellas County to be prosecuted under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

    Hessinger showed the jury a color-coded time line that showed Valdez's arrests, prison sentences and stays in mental institutions. Even before his 1982 sentence for a rape in Alabama, Valdez had been in mental institutions.

    "At this time, you're getting all kinds of assurances from Roberto Valdez about how well he's doing," Hessinger said.

    Although Valdez abused drugs, suffered from psychosis and was prone to violence, those issues have been addressed, said Assistant Public Defender Kevin Beck. Plus, Valdez has been sober for more than 20 years, he said.

    "Interestingly enough, the time line ends six or seven years ago," Beck said. There's nothing else to report, he pointed out.

    The trial is expected to last the rest of the week. On Monday, three women testified about how Valdez attacked them.

    One woman said Valdez came to her home in 1972 to ask about a car she and her husband were selling. Wanting a lower price, Valdez asked if he could call her husband. She led him into the kitchen, where he pulled out a knife and began attacking her, the woman testified.

    "I knew I was going to die," the 65-year-old said Monday. Valdez punched her and cut her clothes. Valdez ran after she grabbed him in the groin, she said. He was later arrested, convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

    That same year, a Pinellas Park teenager told police that Valdez pulled her into his car and raped her. The woman, now 46, told the jury that "he raped me," but prosecutors never filed charges against Valdez.

    In 1980, a clerk at an Alabama convenience store was attacked while she was making coffee for Valdez, she testified. The woman, now 41, said that Valdez put a knife to her throat and sexually assaulted her. He then threatened to kill the woman and her son if she called police, she said.

    The women are not being named because of the nature of the crimes.

    Valdez, who was out on parole from the 1972 conviction, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the Alabama rape. After he finished serving that term, Valdez was sent back to Florida to complete the first sentence because he violated probation.

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