A 38-year-old Merced man who pleaded guilty to repeatedly molesting a 5-year-girl disappeared while in custody more than two weeks ago and the public was not informed, a Merced Sun-Star investigation has confirmed.
Primitivo Gonzalez, who is believed to have left the country, was missing for eight days before the Sheriff’s Office discovered the situation, the Sun-Star has confirmed.
Gonzalez pleaded guilty Nov. 1 to two counts of forcible lewd acts upon a child and one count of lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under 14 years of age. All three counts are violent sex crimes carrying felony strike convictions, according to Merced County Superior Court records.
Gonzalez molested the young female family member repeatedly over a four-year period beginning when the victim was 5 years old. According to reports obtained by the Sun-Star, Gonzalez threatened to beat the child if she told her parents about his abuse.
He was facing 35 years to life in prison.
Court records show Judge Jeanne Schecter ordered Gonzalez to be held in the Merced County Jail without bail ahead of his sentencing hearing scheduled Dec. 21.
However, Merced County Jail records show Gonzalez was released from custody at 11:48 a.m. Nov. 22, apparently after posting a bail bond.
Contacted for comment Thursday, Merced Sheriff Vern Warnke took responsibility for what he described as “our screw up.”
“It was human error on the part of a clerk who didn’t realize there was a second minute order,” Warnke told the Sun-Star.
Minute orders are court records that include orders from judges regarding bail amounts, among other details related to a defendant’s case.
Warnke initially told the Sun-Star deputies discovered the mistake “within hours” of Gonzalez’s release. However, after the Sun-Star followed up later on Thursday, Warnke acknowledged that wasn’t correct, calling it “another mistake.”
Deputies didn’t know Gonzalez was missing for eight days, Warnke confirmed.
The Sheriff’s Office only learned Gonzalez was missing, Warnke said, when Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates contacted his office on Nov. 30. Warnke said Gates alerted the deputies to the fact that Gonzalez had posted bail despite a judge’s order eliminating bail in the case.
“Finding out (from Gates) was when we became aware that anything was wrong,” Warnke said. “Because it appeared he’d bailed out properly, we didn’t know a mistake had been made until (Gates) notified us.”
Gates told the Sun-Star she was contacted by a family member of the victim who told her Gonzalez was no longer in custody. Gates said “nobody expected that this would’ve been possible” because the judge had ordered Gonzalez held without bail and Gonzalez already had pleaded guilty to the violent felony charges.
“I was shocked,” Gates acknowledged. “I thought at first the family was mistaken.”
Warnke apologized for the mistakes, saying he “takes full responsibility” for both Gonzalez’s release and for incorrectly reporting when his office became aware of the situation.
“I was alerted about it when (the deputies) found out and unfortunately I assumed it had been discovered within hours, but that was my assumption because the hour I got the first phone call,” Warnke said. “I sincerely apologize to the victim’s family. There’s just no legitimate excuse for this.”
Warnke described it as “a clerical error” involved in a system that has been in place for many years.
“It’s not just on the clerk,” Warnke said. “There was a problem with our systems and now there are checks and balances we’ve put in place to correct that problem.”
Warnke confirmed Gonzalez’s brother raised $15,000 for a bail bondsman and bailed Gonzalez out of jail.
“They knew it was an error on our part and they took advantage of it,” Warnke said.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Office did not inform the public of the release until Thursday when contacted by the Merced Sun-Star for comment.
“Because we knew he already was out of the country, we knew he wasn’t going to commit any crimes in our community,” Warnke said when asked why the community never was notified before the Sun-Star’s report on Thursday.
Warnke said detectives are working to locate exactly where in Mexico Gonzalez may be hiding and plan to work with authorities across the border to capture him.
“My heart goes out to the victim and we have every intention and are working very hard to bring this guy back and make him pay his debt for the crime he committed,” Warnke said. “I apologize to the community for this. It’s on us; it’s our mistake and we’ve taken actions to correct it and are continuing to look at our policies and procedures for any vulnerabilities.”