An employee with the Merced County Public Defender’s Office was arrested late Wednesday after investigators said he “intentionally allowed” a gang member with a lengthy criminal history to escape from custody.
Steven K. Haywood, 29, was booked at the Merced County jail on suspicion of being an accessory to a crime, a felony. He posted a $50,000 bail bond and was released just before 2 a.m. Thursday, according to jail records.
Haywood was fired Thursday morning from his position as an extra help public defender interviewer, county spokesman Mike North confirmed.
Two attorneys who worked with Haywood said they don’t believe the allegations and urged the public not to rush to judgment.
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On Wednesday night, Haywood was driving three inmates back from the Delancey Street Foundation, a residential drug treatment program in San Francisco. About 9 p.m., deputies said, Haywood allowed 31-year-old John Fuentes to escape, apparently letting him out of the van around North Buhach Road and Ashby Road in Atwater, Deputy Delray Shelton said.
“He agreed to let the inmate, Fuentes, out of the vehicle and escape. Fuentes asked for a 10-minute window to flee,” Shelton said. “When he dropped him off, (Haywood) avoided a (California Highway Patrol officer) who was in the area, so, as you can see, it was planned and (Haywood) directly aided in it.”
Why Haywood is suspected of helping Fuentes escape remained unclear Thursday. “A motive is unknown at this time. As far as we know there were no threats to let him out nor any bribes offered,” Shelton said. “That information is still being looked into.”
Haywood didn’t immediately alert any law enforcement officials about the escape, Shelton said. Instead, he drove with the other two inmates back to the John Latorraca Correctional Center on Sandy Mush Road, more than 12 miles away, before notifying correctional officers of Fuentes’ escape, deputies said.
Shelton said Haywood initially lied about the location of the escape to “purposefully delay” Fuentes’ capture. “Haywood later did admit intentionally not returning the inmate to custody and said he was aware he aided and abetted a felony,” Shelton said.
Fuentes was captured by the sheriff’s Supervised Release Team just after 2 a.m. near the intersection of Center and F streets in Turlock, deputies said.
Public defenders in disbelief
Interim Public Defender Vincent Andrade didn’t return numerous phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
Other attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office described the allegations against Haywood as “unbelievable” and urged the public to wait for all the facts.
Attorneys described Haywood as a polite, shy, hardworking college student who had been hired at the Public Defender’s Office in February after a stint as an intern. County records show Haywood was hired Feb. 10. “I consider Steven a friend,” said Chris Loethen, a deputy public defender. “I’m totally surprised by this; it’s just extremely hard to believe it.”
Deputy Public Defender Caleb Hegland said he supports Haywood “100 percent.”
“I don’t know anything about what happened (Wednesday night), but based on what I do know about Steven’s character, I don’t believe for one second that he would have done anything wrong,” Hegland said. “He’s always done exemplary work for our office.”
Hegland is the attorney representing Fuentes in court.
Efforts to reach Haywood on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Haywood’s brother, William, is employed by the Merced County Sheriff’s Department in the court security division. Shelton said investigators do not believe William Haywood was involved in or knew anything about Wednesday’s escape.
Inmate has lengthy criminal history
Fuentes has been arrested numerous times in Merced County, dating to at least 2004. He pleaded no contest in 2008 to criminal street gang participation, a felony; and a misdemeanor vandalism charge. He pleaded no contest again in 2010 to a stolen property charge. He pleaded guilty in May 2013 to a misdemeanor drug charge and pleaded guilty again in August 2013 to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, according to Merced Superior Court records.
Fuentes was arrested again March 5 on felony counts of marijuana possession for sale and smuggling contraband into the county jail, according to court records.
On June 12, a Merced County judge granted Fuentes permission to interview for the San Francisco-based drug treatment program, over the objections of Deputy District Attorney Nicole Silveira, court records show.
Silveira on Thursday said her objection to Fuentes receiving treatment in lieu of jail time was based on his past criminal history.
Fuentes was scheduled to appear in court early Wednesday, but that hearing was delayed for one day. He is scheduled to appear again Friday, according to court records.
Hegland said he wasn’t aware of any new charges against his client as of Thursday evening.