The first thing visitors notice when they drive into Bay Point along Willow Pass Road is the renovated office of husband-and-wife legal team Araceli Ramirez and Anthony Ashe. The building is situated on a strip dotted with taquerias, auto shops, and dilapidated homes, and the local prostitutes used to linger out front. Back in 1999, it was the first law office in Bay Point. The manicured property was the pride of this unincorporated community, which sits in the shadow of power plants and oil refineries. These days, most residents view the place differently, Ramirez concedes: "Now they say, 'The first thing people see when they drive into Bay Point is Cary Verse's house.'"
Last fall, the couple lunched with Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Brian Haynes, who, thanks to a new state law, was responsible for finding a home for Verse, the Bay Area's most notorious sex offender. In the preceding year and a half, angry residents had run Verse out of first Mill Valley, then Oakland. Although he had finally found refuge in San Jose, the new law required Verse to move back to Contra Costa, where he'd committed his last offense in the early '90s, sexually assaulting a homeless man in a Richmond shelter. Haynes was having no luck finding a willing landlord for Verse; about ninety already had turned him down.
As Verse's story played out on the nightly news, Ramirez and Ashe watched with empathy. Ramirez works in family law and Ashe is a criminal attorney, but both are self-proclaimed do-gooders. Ramirez is a Mexican immigrant who grew up in Bay Point, graduated from Harvard Law School, and returned to the hardscrabble community where her family still lives. "My wife could have written her ticket to Wall Street or some large firm, but she had a strong sense of community," Ashe said. The couple met in the Martinez courtrooms and raised their four children in Bay Point before moving to Walnut Creek three years ago because they didn't want their children crossing paths with families they might have angered in court. Ever since, they have donated office space on their Bay Point property to various nonprofit groups. Two years ago, the county Bar Association honored Ramirez with its Community Service Award.
Listening to Haynes over lunch that day, Ramirez and Ashe wondered whether the vacant cottage on their one-acre property was a good fit for Verse, whose legal travails struck them as legally and morally unethical. Ashe thought it unfair that Verse was still being punished after serving his time, and he was offended that Verse's sentence had been extended because of a law passed while he was in prison. Ramirez viewed Verse's plight as an opportunity to honor the values she'd been raised with. "I'd like to think that if this were World War II and we had a chance to give housing to those who were being persecuted, we'd do it," she said.
The couple naively thought there would be many volunteers. In fact, they were the only applicants. The next week, Haynes arranged a meeting in Judge John Minney's chambers, where Verse's attorney and representatives from the state Department of Mental Health approved the plan. The next step was to make it public and give residents fifteen days to comment. Afterward, Judge Minney would decide whether Verse could move in or had to keep looking.
In anticipation, Ramirez decorated the living space in a "country cottage" motif. She repainted it a soft yellow, stocked the kitchen spice racks, and refurbished the bathroom with stainless-steel fixtures and Laura Ashley towels, just as she'd done in her sons' bathroom. "I wanted Cary to feel at home," she said. Verse was genuinely moved when he toured the cottage prior to Minney's decision. "I wish I felt this much love growing up," Verse said. "What Araceli and Anthony have given me here is really somethin' else."
Friends within the legal community also voiced their support. But Bay Point residents were taken aback. Lyn Estrella, editor of local paper The Courier, jumped into action, publishing six thousand copies of a quickie edition headlined "Special Issue -- Community Alert." Two stories ran down either side of the tabloid's front page. One pictured Verse's mug in a story about upset residents. The other reported on local victims of molestation. Inside, Estrella printed nine photos of other registered sexually violent predators, or SVPs, who already lived in Bay Point. "This got dropped on them so quick it seemed like a back-door thing among attorneys," she said later. "The county rolls right over them all the time. One morning they wake up and they're told Cary Verse is moving into their backyard."
At a hastily called town meeting, locals took turns questioning the couple's intent. Were they in it for the publicity? For the $1,200-a-month rent they'd pull down from the state? After all, they didn't live in Bay Point anymore, so they weren't endangering their own kids.
Wendy Cervantes felt blindsided by the news. Three years ago, the thirty-year-old mother of four had bought her first home just three blocks away from where Verse might soon live. Like Ramirez and Ashe, she too had dedicated herself to Bay Point, as a county worker who provides services to indigent residents. On any given day she might register a couple to vote, take a child to a doctor's appointment, or translate health insurance papers for a Spanish-speaking family. Her work has even taken her to the nonprofit offices on Ramirez and Ashe's property.
But when Cervantes heard about the couple's latest altruistic gesture, it didn't sit well with her. "When I found out he was moving here, I was like, koooosh," she said, making a heart-crushing gesture. "This brought up a lot of bad stuff. I thought it was very nice of them to open their doors to Cary, but there are too many SVPs here already."
Cervantes herself had been molested. It wasn't something she shared with anyone, aside from her husband and a few close friends. But at the town meeting, when she got her chance to speak, the tale of her own victimization fell from her lips before she knew what she was saying.
Cervantes told the crowd the attacker had been her uncle. Everyone had thought he was a good guy. Instantly she felt the dread of exposing too much of herself to her neighbors. "I thought, 'What are people going to think of me?'" she recalled. "What will they do?"
Until she confronted the notion of Verse coming to town, Cervantes thought she'd put the molestation behind her. "I didn't think about it more than once a year, if at all," she said. "Now I have to think about it every day -- it's hard to deal with."
The following weekend she helped organize a protest outside the law office. She printed three thousand fliers advertising the demonstration, but when Cervantes tried to pass them out to students at a Pittsburg high school, administrators barred her from the campus. The sheriff's department wouldn't give her a protest permit, but she obtained one through her relationship with the Pittsburg police.
On a Saturday afternoon she used a bullhorn to lead chants: "Why here, why here? We don't want Cary here." Protesters held up signs that read, "Put Him in Orinda," and "Yes to Family Morality Safety."
News reports put the number of protestors at 150; Cervantes said it was more like 250 to 300. Estrella agreed with Cervantes and said the Contra Costa Times reporter who showed up for the "token twelve minutes" missed how angry residents truly were. "These people don't have a voice," the editor griped. "That's why the county treats them like a dumping ground. Let's face it, our image isn't that good to begin with. This puts a huge black mark on the town."
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