The Salt Lake County Jail almost released a serial killer in mid-August because of a paperwork error by an overworked staff member, Sheriff Jim Winder told the County Council last week.
In pleading for an extra $150,000 in the 2014 budget to hire a second "warrant specialist" to handle a heavy workload of complicated extradition requests from other states, Winder's example sounded as if a major threat to public safety was barely avoided.
In reality, the clerical mistake would not have put the convicted killer on the street. Instead, it would have sent Jose Ortiz-Garcia to the Utah State Prison rather than back to a federal prison in South Carolina to complete a sentence in a separate case. He also is accused in multiple murders in Oregon.
"Because [Ortiz-Garcia] was still under federal custody, after he was sentenced on the capital murder case [here], he had to be returned to federal custody," Deputy District Attorney Blake Nakamura said. "We were only borrowing him under an extradition request, then he had to go back to complete his federal time."
At no time was Ortiz-Garcia, who pleaded guilty to aggravated murder July 11 in the 1989 slaying of Lela Rockwood in Salt Lake City, in a position to be released back onto the streets.
But Winder said this case illustrated the kind of a paperwork mix-up that can produce dangerous results.
Less than two weeks before the Ortiz-Garcia incident occurred, the jail mistakenly released alleged rapist Anthony Santos Moultry from custody. Police and federal marshals arrested the 27-year-old hours later and returned him to jail, where he awaits trial on charges of first-degree rape, burglary, theft and lewdness.
Because "we were on the precipice of having a bad deal take place," Winder said, the Ortiz-Garcia situation prompted meetings between his office and the district attorney to review several "near misses" and to find out "why are we falling down here?"
The answer, the sheriff said, is that "we can't keep up with the volume" of extradition requests from agencies all over the country.
"With the recession, everyone has gone back to basic services," Winder said, meaning there are fewer people to do key public safety jobs. "We can catch people all day long," he said in an interview later, "but if we can't process them correctly, it's wasted. It doesn't get done magically."
Winder turned to the council for funding assistance after his request was not adopted as part of Mayor Ben McAdams' proposed 2014 budget. McAdams told the council the sheriff's request was legitimate, but felt it should be set aside until the council completes budget deliberations and can weigh it against other pleas for funding not in the mayor's $790 million proposal.
The council concurred, putting the sheriff's bid on a list that also includes the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association's request for an extra $200,000 to ensure attorneys there get the 2.5 percent salary increase McAdams proposed for county employees.
Several council members balked at that request, contending the Legal Defender Association is a private contractor whose workers don't need to be treated the same as county employees. But they put it on the list nonetheless.
Budget discussions continue Tuesday, focusing on the district attorney's and mayor's offices, human services, public works, regional services and municipal services for unincorporated areas.