The grandchildren of a prominent SLO County man who was murdered 40 years ago say their grandfather's killer is being released from prison early in part because of recent state orders aimed at reducing prison populations amid COVID-19.
Edward Joseph Prokop was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison decades ago, according to court documents, after he shot and killed SLO County resident Robert Folkerts in October 1980.
Folkerts, who was the owner and operator of the Nipomo Swap Meet, met Prokop as Prokop was traveling through SLO County and gave him a job and a place to stay, according to Katherin Pignatelli, Folkerts' granddaughter. Eventually, Pignatelli said, Prokop found out when and where her grandfather deposited money from the swap meet each week, and attacked and robbed him while he was on his way to the bank, a struggle that led to Folkerts' death.
Prokop has been in prison since, but Pignatelli said that during a parole hearing on May 22, a state Board of Parole Hearings panel recommended his release in a decision unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such recommendations are typically followed by a 150-day review period, in which California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff review an inmate's suitability for parole. If approved by staff, the parole recommendation is passed on to Gov. Gavin Newsom for final approval.
But Pignatelli said she recently received a call from SLO County Victim and Witness Assistance Services informing her that, because of a recent state effort to reduce prison populations, Prokop's review would be expedited, leaving her family with less time to write to the governor and other officials in opposition to Prokop's release.
"It's scary for everybody in our family because he can come after any of us after this," Pignatelli told New Times, adding that while Prokop can't be released into SLO or Santa Barbara counties, there's nothing stopping him from visiting the area.
Pignatelli is blaming, in part, an order Gov. Newsom issued on July 10, expediting the release of prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses with less than a year left to serve on their sentence. Roughly 8,000 prisoners could be released because of the order, an attempt to better prevent the spread of COVID-19 in California's prisons, which have been home to a number of major outbreaks.
The order was criticized by SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow, who wrote in a statement released on July 10 that despite the order's focus on "nonviolent" offenders, "it remains very likely that many deemed eligible for early release will be career criminals and individuals with prior convictions for violent offenses, thus releasing violent offenders."
It isn't clear yet how many prisoners in SLO County are eligible for early release because of the order, but a spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office said at least 27 state prisoners prosecuted in SLO County Superior Court have less than six months left to serve and are eligible for the first round of early releases. That includes some serving time for nonviolent offenses with previous violent convictions.
"I am very troubled that victims of crime and other law abiding citizens who are doing everything they can to follow state and local directives in order to stay safe and healthy will now have to wonder if they will become the next victim of a career criminal who was released early from serving their prison sentence," Dow wrote in a statement.
That's how Pignatelli feels. She grew up without a grandfather because of Prokop, and in a family that was forever traumatized by her grandfather's murder.
"He's just one dangerous person out of so many that are possibly coming into our community," she said.
But while Pignatelli was under the impression that Prokop's parole review would be cut in half and he would likely be released by July 21, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said otherwise. Luis Patiño Jr., a spokesman for the Division of Adult Parole Operations, said Prokop's parole is still under review and a decision likely won't be made until late August.
While the parole process is being expedited, Patiño said it's being shortened by 30 days, from the usual 150-day process to 120.
"The thoroughness of the board's review remains the same," he said, "despite expedited timeframes."