DA plans rare strategy to try to keep sex offender in Atascadero State Hospital

James Hydrick, 55, was a martial arts expert, self-described psychic and escape artist before his 1989 conviction

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 3, 2014 

James Hydrick, a karate expert, self-proclaimed psychic and convicted sex offender who is petitioning for his release from Atascadero State Hospital, appeared on several national TV shows in the 1980s. Here he tries to demonstrate his psychic abilities on 'That's My Line.'


The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office plans to present victims from decades-old crimes to a jury in an effort to keep a convicted sex offender with an intriguing past off the streets. But a defense attorney says James Hydrick has served his time and does not pose a threat to the public.

Long before he was convicted, the 55-year-old Hydrick, whose trial began with jury selection Wednesday in San Luis Obispo, gained notoriety as a nationally known karate expert and self-proclaimed psychic. He also garnered a reputation as an escape artist, having fled from jails and prisons in three states.

In 1989, the Huntington Beach resident was convicted of committing lewd and lascivious acts on six boys and sentenced in Orange County to 17 years in prison. Once his prison term ended, he was sent to Atascadero State Hospital for treatment under the state’s sexually violent predator law.

Under a 2006 change in that law, the District Attorney’s Office can file an extension petition and hold a jury trial to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person should be re-committed to the hospital for an indeterminate term. If a jury concludes the person no longer meets the criteria as a sexually violent predator, he is released on parole.

The District Attorney’s Office sought more hospital time for Hydrick during a trial last May, and a jury voted 10-2 in favor of releasing him. Because the hearings require a unanimous verdict, a hung jury was declared.

The District Attorney’s Office then had the option to either allow Hydrick to be released or to pursue a second trial. The office decided to pursue a second trial in order to keep him hospitalized. But since a jury nearly freed Hydrick a year ago, this time the prosecution plans to call several victims from previous cases — a rare move — to convince jurors that Hydrick is dangerous.

“They’re not trying the same case they did last time,” said Hydrick’s attorney, Raymond Allen. “(The previous verdict) scared them a little bit. I don’t think they expected that.” Hydrick’s trial is held in San Luis Obispo County because that’s where his last commitment offense originated, Allen said, though he would not elaborate on what that offense was.

While state law mandates that some sex offenders undergo treatment upon serving their prison terms, whether they are mentally ill and can be treated has long been debated. Under the law, a court can release hospitalized sex offenders if they are deemed to no longer be a danger to society and unlikely to commit sexually violent crimes in the future.

A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office could not be reached this week. But during Hydrick’s previous trial, in May, psychologist Jesus Padilla testified for the prosecution that Hydrick had not changed much since his conviction.

“He doesn’t seem to have the ability to keep himself from engaging in this type of behavior,” he told a jury. “He’s been an extremely difficult patient.” Forensic psychologist Theodore Donaldson testified for the defense that Hydrick doesn’t have a mental illness.

The addition of dramatic testimony from the victims, who are now 35 to 40 years old, will attempt to portray Hydrick as a “boogeyman,” Allen said, when the focus of the hearing should be on expert testimony.

“So before (jurors) even start hearing from the scientists about whether or not this guy’s got a mental disorder and whether or not that mental disorder could possibly cause him to be dangerous, which is what the statue requires, they’re already trying to make certain that they never have to see him in their backyard,” Allen said.

Before his 1989 sentencing, Hydrick was a near mythical figure. He once told the Los Angeles Times that his mother had abandoned him in a trash can when he was a year old. He said he took karate lessons as a child after seeing a brother beaten to death. An editor at “Inside Kung Fu” once said Hydrick was the only person besides Bruce Lee who could kick an object 11 feet off the ground, and in the 1980s, he appeared on several TV shows, including “That’s Incredible!” and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

Once proclaimed “the world’s leading psychic,” he also committed several crimes in the 1980s that bolstered his reputation when he became a reputed escape artist. In 1988, he gave the Los Angeles Times a list from a prison in his native South Carolina that indicated he had a record of 149 escapes from various institutions, usually by kicking down cell walls, bending bars or breaking handcuffs.

When San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy learned of his escape past during his trial a year ago, she ordered Hydrick cuffed to the defense table.

In 1988, Hydrick claimed most of his crimes were minor — including convictions for jaywalking and receiving stolen property. But one of them, from 1977, entailed a conviction for kidnapping and torture. Hydrick, who claimed he was one of the victims not assailants in that case, served 2½ years in Los Angeles County Jail then.

By the late '80s, his entertaining feats — including one in which the 6-foot-4 Hydrick smashed through 89 inches of concrete with a forearm and elbow blow — began attracting crowds.

“I plan to put on these breaking exhibitions around the country to raise money to help abused and neglected children,” he told the L.A. Times before the concrete smashing in 1988.

That same year, Orange County prosecutors would later say, he was using his notoriety not to help children but to lure them and abuse them. After pleading guilty to 11 felonies, Hydrick was sentenced to 17 years in prison, though he still maintained his innocence.

Twenty-five years later, the prosecution will suggest that a sick Hydrick is not fit to return to society. The defense will argue that Hydrick is not mentally ill and deserves to be released, now eight years after his maximum prison sentence.

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