William Mansfield Sr., who was sent to prison in 1980 for committing lewd acts with young girls, was released last week after serving 10 years of his 30-year sentence. The early release shocked the lawyer who prosecuted Mansfield and the judge who presided over the case.
It also seemed to contradict the recommendation of the Florida Parole Commission, which last year concluded that Mansfield was a "risk to society" and voted to keep him in prison.
But Department of Corrections officials say the 65-year-old Mansfield was a model prisoner, who earned an early release by working hard, staying out of trouble and accumulating "gain time."
"I hope he's truly rehabilitated," said former Circuit Judge L.R. Huffstetler, who presided over Mansfield's case.
"It was my position then and it is my position now that he should have remained incarcerated for the full term he was sentenced to, because it was a very gross case."
Mansfield was indicted in 1980 on 40 sex-related charges; records at the parole commission alleged he engaged in sex acts with dozens of children, including one who was assaulted repeatedly from the time she was 9 months old.
Court files show that one victim was treated to fries and a soft drink before being sexually assaulted; another met Mansfield at a toddler's birthday party. Mansfield pleaded no contest to four of the 40 charges.
Soon after Mansfield was arrested, his son Billy Mansfield Jr. was charged with the murders of five women and the attempted rape of a sixth. Four of the murder victims were buried in the back yard of the Mansfield home in Weeki Wachee Acres. Mansfield Jr. is serving a sentence in California prison because his fifth victim was killed there.
The arrests shocked Hernando County residents, who read in newspapers and watched on television news shows an almost daily unfolding of the gruesome crimes.
Former Assistant State Attorney James Brown, who prosecuted the Mansfields, called the early release "a hell of a commentary" on Florida's corrections system.
"At the time (Mansfield agreed to plead no contest), we had checked with the Parole Commission and whatnot and we were assured by the state and the court and the probation people that they were very well satisfied that he would be in there past the turn of the century and if he was ever released, he would be too old to be a danger to anyone," Brown said Tuesday.
"The way Judge Huffstetler did it was a very carefully crafted sentence. There wasn't any one of us that had any doubt that the sentence would keep him in there forever."
The Parole Commission also watched Mansfield carefully.
Last year, the commission rejected Mansfield's parole request because he hadn't participated in sex-offender therapy.
Without such therapy, Mansfield was considered by the commission as a risk to society, according to Linda Henderson, administrative assistant to Parole Commission Chairman E. Guy Revell Jr.
In 1985, Kenneth Simmons, then chairman of the parole commission, said parole officials monitored Mansfield's projected release date so that once his release became imminent, he would be paroled. In that way, the parole commission could circumvent an unrestricted release and, through parole, could attach conditions to his freedom.
Last year, when the commission reviewed Mansfield's parole request, his release date was listed as 1995, Ms. Henderson said.
According to the Department of Corrections, the projected release dates change continuously.
Prisoners have "gain time" shaved off their sentences; they can earn sentence reductions through work incentives.
Mansfield "has been steadily earning gain time and his sentence has gone down little by little," said Chuck Manning, a probation officer at the Marion Correctional Institution in Lowell.
"He just got basic work and incentive gain time ... It (the sentence) just goes down seven to eight months per year."
Mansfield's release is unconditional. He does not have to report to a parole officer or participate in any supervised tasks. Mansfield, who was expected to return to his Weeki Wachee Acres home, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Brown, the former prosecutor, noted that prisoners are released early to make room for more prisoners; he said he wondered who was sent to prison to fill the space vacated by Mansfield.
"It was probably some poor little 18-year-old boy, sentenced to prison for stealing something," Brown said. "It was probably someone who needed imprisonment far less than Mansfield.
"And that leaves a very bad taste in my mouth."