District Attorney Tim Ward teams up with Riverside law enforcement to demand help from state over failed legislation that leads to the release criminals
VISALIA – Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward begs the question, when did California, the land of opportunity, somehow simply become the haven for opportunistic criminals? After criminals are repeatedly released from jail before serving even a fraction of their sentence.
On April 12, Ward joined Riverside law enforcement agencies in a press conference to discuss the impact that Assembly Bill (AB) 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act in 2021, is having on the criminal justice system in California. Ward joined Riverside County DA Mike Hestrin, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco and Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez to express their concern and demand help from state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The connection of Tulare and Riverside County comes through a serial “smash and grab” burglar Timothy Bethel, 31. He has victimized both counties, been charged with a total of 39 felonies and continues to be released after serving only a fraction of his sentence each time.
“It seems that in the eyes of the state and the policies coming out of this administration, the victims have suddenly become the least important people inside our courtrooms,” Ward said. “Is it too much to demand that in our system of justice, the victims be afforded some right to an authentic truth of justice, and a hope of actual accountability and protection in public safety.”
At Bethell’s most recent sentencing on March 31, he was sentenced to five years and four months in a local state prison after pleading guilty to 20 counts: 17 felonies of theft, burglary, attempted burglary, and vandalism, two misdemeanor counts of vandalism and one misdemeanor count of possession of a smoking device. Tulare and Riverside law enforcement said they know Bethell will be released before serving any time in state prison.
“We’re living in a world where consequences for bad evil and dangerous behavior keep getting reduced, those consequences are being reduced in order to test some hypothesis, that crime is somehow not the fault of the criminal,” Ward said.
According to the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, Bethell has an extensive criminal history starting with a 2014 felony drug conviction from Fresno County. Bethell began his first crime spree in August 2021 when he burglarized, vandalized, and stole from seven Visalia businesses. After his arrest, Bethell pleaded no contest to 14 felony charges of burglary and vandalism. He was sentenced to 4 years suspended state prison and two years’ probation in September 2021. Bethell was released to a recovery program but immediately absconded and failed to report to probation.
Eight days later, Bethell committed and pleaded no contest to an additional felony burglary at a Visalia Walgreens where he stole $2,800 in cash and merchandise. However, instead of sentencing Bethell to prison per the prior four year suspended prison sentence, the court sentenced him to one-year local state prison and one year of mandatory supervision. Bethell was released from custody in May 2022, and, by request, his mandatory supervision was transferred to his home county of Riverside.
In the summer of 2022 while in Riverside County, Bethell committed even further vandalism and thefts and pleaded guilty to six more felonies against five businesses. In early December 2022, he was sentenced to three years local state prison but was released three days later due to jail crowding. Bethell failed to report to probation and then returned to Tulare County where he committed his most recent offenses which he was sentenced for on March 31.
“Timothy Bethell should be in prison. He should have been in prison after the first few felonies that he was convicted of, it shouldn’t take 37 felonies,” Hestrin said. “And he’s still not in prison to this day and he’ll be out soon, we all know that.”
“Enough is enough"
The reason the two counties joined together is to point out that Bethell’s story is not the only one. These law enforcement agencies are banding together to say “enough is enough” and to call attention to the chaos that is ensuing in their counties.
“The reason why we’re here is we are doing everything we can to protect property in this county, and we simply can’t do it. We can’t do it,” Hestrin said. “We have to tell business owners day in and day out…I know that the law says you have a right to your property and then we should protect it, but there’s nothing I can do. The state won’t protect your property.”
Ward said the people of California are paying the price for “the social experiments that are being born on the backs of crime victims and law abiding citizens across the state.” Riverside sheriff Bianco agreed with Ward and said the release of so many criminals is a complete failure by Gov. Newsom. Due to AB 109, Bianco said county jails are required to hold people for periods of time instead of placing them in state prison. As more offenders are booked at the local level, jails are then forced to release the lowest level offenders to make room for more inmates. Depending on the day those low level offenders could be Bethell, or a similar case.
“This is a complete failure of your governor, and the vast majority of your legislators who have absolutely lied to all of you, for a political, philosophical agenda,” Bianco said. “The businesses that [Bethell victimized], that is our community. And their philosophical ideological agenda is destroying those businesses.”
Riverside Police Chief Gonzalez took a minute to share his point of view on the issue as well as a few other stories similar to Bethell’s case. Gonzalez said compared to last year, RIverside has already seen a 31% increase in commercial burglaries from this time last year. He said consequences for repeated theft must be brought back because as it stands now those consequences have been “legislated away.”
“As a community and as a state we must recognize and admit that our prison reform efforts have gone too far. They have gone beyond the intended purpose that have victimized our communities,” Gonzalez said. “The transfer of responsibility from our states to our counties for incarceration of nonviolent offenders has overburdened our county facilities, resulting in thousands of criminals walking and often living on our streets, re victimizing our residents.”
Gonzalez pointed out two stories, one of the “snake burglar” and another of a known female car thief. The snake burglar crawls around business to avoid detection while stealing merchandise from businesses. He is a confirmed suspect in 60 commercial burglaries in the city of Riverside. Most recently he pled out to 23 felonies and was sentenced to six different sentences for 16 months, but he served less than 10 days in jail.
“We’re committed to continuing to investigate and prosecute [him] but unfortunately, the infrastructure was never put in place to hold them accountable when the codes were rewritten,” Gonzalez said.
The second case is a woman who has faced over 50 felony charges. Most recently warrants were served and she was arrested for a string of vehicle burglaries in the downtown Riverside area. The string of thefts led to countless burglaries, mail thefts, credit card and identity thefts. Gonzalez said she was in custody on Monday, and on Wednesday she had already been released.
“The consequence associated with these crimes is not adequate to dissuade the behavior of her like many other criminals like her,” Gonzalez said.
Hestrin made a call to Gov. Newsom to help his state, to not turn a blind eye and see what is happening as a result of AB 109. It significantly changed state law by shifting the burden to incarcerate most felons from the state to individual counties. At the time, the Legislature claimed that the shift was necessary to combat prison overcrowding. Since then, however, the state prison population has decreased so much that in December the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that within the next two years it would close Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, exit the lease for California City Correctional Facility, and deactivate facilities in six other prisons. This follows the closure of Duel Vocational Institution in 2021.
Hestrin said his first ask is for the state legislatures to pass laws and amend AB 109 to allow for these law enforcement agencies to hold the “habitual offenders” accountable. He said there has to be consequences so that he and other entities can help businesses stay in business. Hestrin also mentioned that a defense they have heard from the state is to use the Organized Retail Theft Bill, but he said cases like Bethells do not apply to this. He then asked the Governor to deal with the major problem at hand.
“I’ll say this to our governor, come back home. Stop the dog and pony show across other states, come back home and deal with what’s happening in our state,” Hestrin said. “You’re our governor. The people of this state chose you, come back and deal with the problem. It’s a mess.”