When FBI agents this summer knocked on the door of a small house near Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan town of Panajachel, felony fugitive Jeffrey Parish answered. “Yeah, I know why you’re here,” the 65-year-old said as the agents introduced themselves.
Parish was arrested and flown back to Santa Barbara, where, for the past 18 years, he’s been a wanted man suspected of molesting a 4-year-old girl in March 1994. During the long flight north, Sheriff’s Detective Ted Toedte talked with Parish for hours. “He’s an extremely likable guy,” Toedte said. “He’s personable and polite. But that’s how these guys are. They want to come across as friendly and trustworthy.”
Thursday afternoon in a Santa Barbara courtroom, Parish pleaded no contest to a charge of lewd act upon a child with the special allegation of substantial sexual contact, a strike under California law. He also pleaded no contest to oral copulation with a person under the age of 16 and charges related to skipping bail and failing to appear in court. Parish will be sentenced on October 16 when he’ll receive the maximum term of 10 years and eight months in state prison, and he’ll be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He was recently placed in protective custody in County Jail after inmates learned of his charges and started threatening him.
When Sheriff’s officials announced last month that Parish was in custody, four Santa Barbara women came forward and claimed they were also molested by Parish when they were younger. While many of their stories appear credible, authorities said, Parish will not be prosecuted in those cases because of the statute of limitations on such crimes. However the group of women — all younger than 14 at the time of their contact with Parish — plan on addressing Parish and the court during his sentencing hearing. Santa Barbarans who knew Parish in the ‘80s and ‘90s said he and his wife lived a “hippie lifestyle” and would often frequent nude beaches.
Parish was originally arrested in Santa Barbara in 1994 — he was 47 at the time — but ran from the area after posting bail. “Shortly after fleeing justice, Parish wrote a family member and conveyed that he was leaving and never returning,” said a Sheriff’s spokesperson in a press release last year. Authorities in the ‘90s believed he had moved to Mexico where he would spend a few months of the year with his family. The trail soon went cold, however, until Detective Toedte recently reopened the file when he realized Parish — who, at the time of his first arrest, was living in Goleta with his mother and working as a gardener — still had family in town, including an ex-wife and son. (Toedte said that at any given time the Sheriff’s Department has approximately 2,500 outstanding felony warrants on the books.)
Through interviews with Parish’s 90-year-old mother, Toedte learned her primary caretaker was a Guatemalan man named Luis Urbina. Following that lead and coordinating with the FBI on certain “informational data” he couldn’t elaborate on, Toedte figured out that a man currently living in Guatemala was receiving money from Urbina via Western Union from 2005 to 2011. An FBI field agent got in touch with that man, whose name is confidential, and showed him pictures of Parish. The man said he recognized Parish, but knew him as “Blake.” The money was reportedly being used to help pay for Parish’s medical bills, as he suffers health problems.
FBI agents were later led to Parish’s house, learning from his neighbors that he had been working as a handyman and sometimes sold used books. Parish reportedly had a girlfriend for some time, but his checkered past and flight from justice was not public knowledge in Panajachel. “They were all clueless,” said Toedte, “and they were extremely shocked when they found out.” Urbina has been charged with aiding and concealing a fugitive, and his case is pending. He’s also suspected of coordinating communications between Parish and his mother over the years.
“Justice was indeed done today,” said Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig after Thursday’s hearing, explaining Parish will be required to serve at least half his prison sentence. “His flight, to me, is a huge indication of his consciousness of guilt,” he went on. “It’s a good day for Santa Barbara law enforcement.”
Regarding Parish’s other suspected victims, Ladinig said he consulted with two of California’s top prosecutors who specialize in sex crimes and the applicable statute of limitations but discovered there is no way to charge him in those cases. “I’d like him to never get out of prison, but the law is the law,” said Ladinig.