After he was paroled in 2010, California corrections officials had every right to place killer Loren Herzog in a trailer near Susanville, a Sacramento-based appellate court ruled Tuesday.
The city of Susanville and Lassen County sued to get rid of him, and Lassen Superior Court Judge F. Donald Sokol ordered the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to move him out of the county.
But a three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal declared Tuesday in a 17-page opinion: "Neither the city, the county, nor the court can interfere with the department's exclusive discretion to determine a parole placement."
Herzog, 46, hanged himself in the trailer on Jan. 16, and the department then argued the issues are not likely to recur so the matter is moot. The plaintiffs disagreed. So did the justices, and they proceeded.
Herzog and partner Wesley Shermantine started killing animals in their teens and grew into methamphetamine-crazed killers of people. Shermantine, 45, recently has been directing authorities to the bodies of the duo's victims from his death row cell at San Quentin State Prison.
Herzog committed suicide a few hours after Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla told him Shermantine was fingering him for murders and that 12 bodies were in a well on Herzog's property. Padilla told him he had no immunity from prosecution and suggested he get a lawyer.
A jury found Herzog guilty of three first-degree murders, and he was sentenced to what was the equivalent of life in prison. But he won early freedom because his convictions were thrown out on appeal and he cut a deal for 14 years in return for a plea of voluntary manslaughter in connection with one of the deaths.
Corrections officials were faced with the task of finding a suitable parole placement, made all the more difficult by statutory restrictions on where he could live and by public outcry. Ultimately, the agency provided Herzog with a trailer within a fenced compound on the grounds of High Desert State Prison and imposed severe restrictions on his movements.
Susanville and Lassen County officials submitted 6,000 signatures from residents more than 17 percent of the county's population opposing Herzog's placement there, but to no avail.
"On the record before us, we can find no abuse of discretion," Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye wrote for the panel with Associate Justices George Nicholson and Andrea Lynn Hoch in concurrence. "Not only did the department adhere to the requisite statutory mandates, it handpicked a living situation for Herzog to maximize security and thereby to minimize the risk to the local population."
The panel noted that Herzog's every move was electronically monitored, he was restricted to prison grounds at least 17 1/2 hours a day, he was escorted to appointments off the grounds, and he had to notify correctional officers when he left or a visitor arrived.
The city and county argued the department failed to provide them with a written statement of reasons for the placement, as required by state law.
The justices said they do not condone the failure, but pointed out that parole officials met with representatives of county and city law enforcement before Herzog's release and explained their reasons. Moreover, the department detailed its rationale in materials it submitted as part of the Lassen court proceedings.
The plaintiffs "do not allege, and there is no evidence to suggest, that they did not know or understand why Lassen county was chosen. Nor do they allege that the oversight compromised their ability to contest the placement," the justices said.