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Neighbors leery of halfway house for violent felons

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POSTED August 9, 2013 12:28 a.m.

Stacie Riordan sees people walking out in front of her house every day.

On the surface that wouldn’t seem like a big deal. But Riordan lives next to the Northstar Program’s facility on South Airport Way, where people that are released from California’s mental health lockup facilities come for treatment. She says that she’s tired of worrying about her own safety and wondering what kind of violent crimes the men she sees on a daily basis were committed to mental hospitals for.

And the possible arrival of 72-year-old Ronald Toppila – who was convicted of first degree murder in 2004 after stabbing his mother 52 times with a box cutter and breaking her larynx, ribs and jaw in the process – doesn’t make her feel any safer.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge could rule as early as today on whether Toppila – who committed the crime in Sacramento – can be released from the Napa State Hospital where he has been since 2006. His murder conviction was sidelined after the court found him not guilty by reason of insanity. This marks the second time that authorities have considered his release.

In 2008 a judge struck down a motion that would have released him after declaring that a psychiatrist that testified had committed perjury.

The wheels are already in motion to place Toppila at the Northstar Programs complex on South Airport Way. That has infuriated neighbors like Riordan. She contends that the letter she received when the building was under construction claimed it was going to be a rehabilitation center for the elderly.

“I see them walk back and forth to the store unescorted every day. They go right past my house,” she said. “I was quite shocked when I found out the truth about what was really going on there. There are a lot of little kids that play in this area and kids that walk home from school.

“I find myself checking the lock on the door three or four times during the day. You should be able to feel safe at your own home.”

Concord-based Anka Behavioral Health Inc. operates the facility. It is designed as a halfway house for those being prepared to be released back into society from prison who committed serious felonies such as murder and were essentially determined to be mentally ill.

Riordan vividly remembers behind home on the morning on Oct. 8, 2007 when she heard two men arguing in the facility next door. Raymond Lee – a 63-year-old San Francisco man who was transferred to live at the halfway house after a stay in Napa – ended up stabbing 52-year-old housemate Mark Alan Wade more than a dozen times.

Lee had previously been charged with murder in San Francisco, but the charges were dropped because of his mental health issues. He was sent to the Napa State Hospital instead.

Irene Leonardo thought many of the same things that Riordan did when she first learned that a convicted murderer might end up living around the corner from her.

It’s unsettling, Leonardo said, that neighboring homeowners don’t know the history of the people who live in the group home – especially when they’re out roaming the streets without supervision and living in a facility that isn’t locked down.

“I make sure that everything is locked when I come back into the house. I can’t believe that I’ve been living here and those people are living down there and nobody has said anything – that they don’t have to tell you when something like that goes in next door,” Leonardo said. “I walk every morning and now I don’t feel safe at all. I wish I didn’t know.”

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