Citizens who came to the aid of an 11-year-old girl may have prevented a convicted sex offender from claiming his next victim.
Although the convicted sex offender was briefly set free, he was arrested again by Merced police for the alleged crime on Friday.
Merced police arrested convicted sex offender Tony Perez Vaca, 36, in the 900 block of Sydney Lane around 1 p.m. Thursday, said police Lt. Andre Matthews. Merced police arrived at the scene after the girl, who Vaca was allegedly following, was helped by nearby residents Jess Hernandez and his wife, Andrea.
"I saw this little girl screaming," Andrea Hernandez recalled. "I said, 'What's wrong, sweetheart?' and she said, 'That man is trying to grab me.'"
Andrea, 77, called Merced police, while her husband got in his car and confronted Vaca, who was riding a bike. As Jess pulled his car in front of Vaca's bike, Matthews said Merced police arrived and took Vaca into custody.
The girl, who is a student at Tenaya Middle School, was traumatized from the event, Matthews said, but otherwise was unhurt. Matthews said Vaca allegedly waved at the girl and asked her to "come over." "(The Hernandezes) probably saved the girl," Matthews said.
The victim, whose name is being withheld at the request of her family and because she's a minor, said she was afraid that she would never "see her parents again." She said although Vaca didn't speak to her, he gestured to her, using hand signals, and she became frightened. "Thank God nothing happened to me," she said. "I think he should be in jail."
The girl added that she is "not frightened anymore."
Merced police Lt. Bimley West said Vaca was cited and released not long after his arrest. West said the man had a "medical issue" and required medical clearance from a physician before he could be booked at the jail. West declined to disclose Vaca's medical issue.
A Riggs Ambulance was called for Vaca after his arrest. After Vaca received medical treatment, West said a police sergeant decided to cite and release Vaca on a misdemeanor charge of annoying and molesting a child.
"We have to make sure that he get's evaluated for whatever the medical problem is," Matthews explained. "If a person has a medical need, then we have to meet that need."
By Friday evening, however, Merced police took Vaca into custody again after receiving a Ramey warrant for his arrest. A Ramey warrant is signed by a judge and allows law enforcement to arrest a subject from his home. Vaca was then booked on charges of annoying or molesting a child with a prior felony conviction.
Cmdr. Floyd Higdon said the department decided, after a further review of Vaca's case, that there was probable cause to place him back into custody on a felony charge. "We were able to look at the total circumstances with the additional information that patrol did not have (Thursday)."
Tom MacKenzie, spokesperson for the Merced County Sheriff's Department, the agency that oversees the county's jails, said it is the responsibility of the original arresting agency to medically clear an arrested person before he can be booked.
MacKenzie said the policy exists, to some degree, to protect the jail from liability issues should an inmate's medical condition become an issue.
West said Vaca lives in the area where he tried to approach the girl, and his crimes go back to 1993. According to the state's Megan's Law Web site, Vaca has previously been arrested for felony annoying and molesting a child and misdemeanor indecent exposure. "He's been in the system for quite some time," West said.
Tenaya Middle School sent notices home with children Friday notifying parents about the incident. "This is a public safety issue. That's where he should be pending the internal review on this District Attorney on this case."
Higdon said Jess and Andrea Hernandez were heroic for stepping in to help the young girl. However, Higdon said members of the public need to be careful when approaching a potentially dangerous person or situation.
Vaca is being held on $50,000 at the Merced County Main Jail.
Reporter Victor A. Patton
can be reached at 209 385-2431