The Ohlone Park tot lot. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A man who tried to give a baby a mystery drink at North Berkeley’s Ohlone Park in June has been charged with annoying or molesting a child, authorities report, after several bizarre run-ins with local kids in recent months.

And city officials say they have been working to ensure all Berkeley tot lots have signs indicating that adults without children are not allowed — and to encourage police to enforce the rules in relation to those signs.

In court papers, Berkeley Police Officer Jesse Grant compiled several incidents involving 36-year-old William Turner that raised community concerns. In May, a witness said Turner removed nearly all his clothes in front of a preschool before police were called to take him for a psychological evaluation. Several weeks later, there was the incident at the Ohlone Park tot lot where Turner reportedly tried to convince several children to drink from a bottle he claimed held water and honey.

Then, at the end of June, Grant said in court documents that Turner “stripped down to black underwear” and got on a playground swing at Ohlone Park after approaching children there and confessing to their mother that he had been sent to prison and “wrongfully accused for child molestation.”

Turner is being held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on $25,000 bail, according to Alameda County sheriff’s office records online, after his arrest July 19 at John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro. He was charged Friday with two misdemeanor counts of child molesting, which is more specifically identified as annoying or molesting a child, from separate incidents in June. Turner was scheduled for an attorney and plea hearing Monday morning. His next court appearance was not immediately available.

Turner also faced allegations of stalking and trespassing involving an Oregon woman who did not know him but became the object of his affection, according to court papers.

Grant wrote that Turner’s strange behavior in Berkeley was first noted May 19 at about 6:30 a.m. in the 1400 block of Fifth Street. A resident “saw Turner with his arms ‘perched’ on the top of the fence to his property and Turner was staring into his front window.” Numerous toys in the yard were a clear indicator of children there, the man told Grant, though no children were present when Turner was looking around.

The man then watched as Turner walked to a nearby preschool, lay down in the street and took off all his clothes but his shorts, according to court documents. The man stopped Turner as he tried to take off the shorts, then called police. Authorities sent Turner for a psychiatric evaluation, but he was soon back in Berkeley.

On June 12, Turner showed up at the Ohlone Park tot lot and tried to get several youth to drink from his bottle, according to court papers. He tried to give the bottle to a 1-year-old, but the boy’s mother intervened. (She previously described that day to Berkeleyside in detail.) Turner then zeroed in on two other children whose parents were some distance away. He was also seen pushing a child in a swing, police said.

A witness in the tot lot that day told police he or she had talked to Turner several days prior: “During this conversation Turner stated he had killed three police officers earlier in the day and they were hanging in a tree,” Grant wrote. “Turner also stated repeatedly that he had raped ‘toddlers’ and ‘babies’ and that he had not wanted to do it but he had to do it.”

Turner told police he tried to give the baby the bottle because he looked like “he might be a little woozy” and “looked a little dehydrated in the eyes.” Turner said he asked himself what Jesus would do, and said the scriptures dictated that one should give water to a child. He admitted to police that the boy’s mother had refused the offer. But that wasn’t the end of his efforts, according to police.

“After they left the park new people came with a young boy and the ‘holy ghost’ prompted him to offer that boy water too,” Grant said Turner told him. Turner also told police he would like to babysit for that family: “possibly even become family” and “take over the house and play Disney XD and get paid for it.”

Grant said Turner, as evidenced by remarks he made in the presence of police, “was fixated on children and always came back to children.” Turner described himself, according to court papers, as “a protector and guardian of Girl Scouts.” And he said he didn’t like how people treat Girl Scouts like “little chattel girls,” and ignore them when they are trying to sell their cookies, when they should instead be viewed as “holy sacred vessels of the lord.”

“I don’t ignore kids because kids are our government,” he said, according to court papers. “I’m good with kids because I’m a kid at heart.”

Turner also said in June, police wrote, that he was “dating several ‘girls.'” He told police that “this does not mean he is a molester or a pedophile” because “when he says ‘girls’ he is playing up the ‘feminine.'”

The day of his arrest June 12, police said Turner was in possession of a stolen guitar. He told officers someone on Shattuck Avenue had given him the instrument, but that person told police he had left it unattended and come back to find it gone. Turner has also been charged with a misdemeanor related to receiving stolen property as a result.

Swing set incident prompts new arrest

The swing set at the Ohlone Park playground at McGee. Photo: Emilie Raguso

On June 30, another Berkeley mother told police she was troubled by Turner’s behavior. She was at the same Ohlone Park tot lot with her three kids, ages 1, 6 and 9, “when Turner came up fast from behind her and started talking to her” as she pushed the baby on the swing.

“He jumped on the swing next to her son,” Grant wrote. “He said things that did not make sense.”

Turner tried to make conversation with the older children, which initially seemed normal but then took a turn.

He told them he was “the best baby sitter” and said they should give him a try.

“She told him, ‘I don’t think so guy,'” Grant wrote. Turner then gestured to the open swing beside him and urged one of the children to “Come step into my office.” He turned back to the mother and said, according to court papers, “I just think you should know I was once arrested and went to prison and I was wrongfully accused for child molestation.”

The mother decided, at that point, it was time to leave. As the family did, wrote Grant, “Turner stripped down to black underwear and got back on the swing.… She said it was bizarre that a grown man without kids would enter the park and try to talk to and approach kids and take his clothes off.”

The “annoying or molesting” charges are punishable “by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars ($5,000), by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both the fine and imprisonment,” according to the state Penal Code. Conviction of the offense requires lifetime registration as a sex offender, according to charging documents.

In court papers, Grant also described a stalking case from Oregon involving a woman who said Turner became focused on her for four months though they did not know each other. The woman told police in Oregon she was scared of Turner because “he says he’s in love with me, we are going to get married, and he prayed on my porch for over four hours once to protect me from demons.”

When he was arrested in that case, Turner told police he and the woman were boyfriend and girlfriend, Grant wrote. Later, when authorities served him with a civil stalking complaint, he told officers he thought it was a “a bit extreme,” saying: “I really love this girl.”

Playground incidents spur neighbors, official to action

The first incident at Ohlone Park came not long after a woman was reported by authorities to have forced methamphetamine into a child’s mouth at People’s Park near Telegraph Avenue. The mother of the baby Turner tried to bottle feed said that incident was fresh in her mind when Turner approached her child.

A group of neighbors who organize under the name “Friends of Ohlone Park” told officials in a letter last month that they were worried about kids in Berkeley, too. They noted another incident near the tot lot when “a neighbor was aggressively confronted by an unstable homeless man. She called the police.”

They wrote that there have been increasing numbers of “homeless people without children” using the fenced tot lot near McGee: “Sometimes they are sleeping, sometimes they use the play equipment late at night, and at times they exhibit bizarre behavior that appears to be drug related.”

They continued: “Such occurrences are preventing parents from using these playgrounds. As we enter the summer season when parks should be at their peak use, families must have the City’s assurance that our children will be safe in Berkeley’s parks.”

The neighbors said in their letter — to the mayor, two council members, the city manager, the parks director and the police chief — that Berkeley law already prohibits unaccompanied adults from being inside fenced tot lots. They said all city parks should have clear signage to that effect, but that only some do. They said the signs should be prominent, and they asked for increased police patrols to keep a close eye on playgrounds in the short term.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison — who was on the city’s parks commission for 10 years — also sprang into action after learning about the People’s Park and first Ohlone Park incidents. She said she heard about them from some concerned individuals and also saw the discussion they were prompting on private social network Nextdoor — in particular in relation to the missing signs about unaccompanied adults at playgrounds.

“So I just decided to take care of it and see if we could get these signs put up,” she said Sunday.

She reached out to the parks department, and also to the city manager, and described both as “very helpful.”

As of mid-July, 10 of those signs had been installed in Berkeley’s 21 tot lots. And Harrison said some of the tot lots already had signage posted. Any signs that haven’t been put up yet should be forthcoming: She said she thinks it’s important for the city to be consistent about its message.

“I worry about children, and I think that parents want to make sure kids are safe when they’re in our parks,” Harrison said. “I’m very pleased to have been able to do that.”

Community member Charles Siegel reported on Berkeleyside on June 21 that signage had been installed the prior afternoon at the Ohlone Park tot lot at McGee Avenue.

“Thanks to the members of Friends of Ohlone Park (FOOP) for writing to the city manager, parks department, and councilmembers about this,” wrote Siegel. “Thanks to city officials for responding so quickly. And thanks to Berkeleyside for emphasizing that there was not a sign restricting the use of the tot lot; I think the picture of the sign in Berkeleyside really helped … bring it to the attention of the city.”

In a prepared statement he released in June, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he found the incidents “involving children and transients at local parks … extremely troubling.” He described the safety of local families as “a top priority.”

Arreguín said all city playgrounds should be safe and welcoming, and that signage restricting unaccompanied adults should be clearly visible at all Berkeley playgrounds. He said he planned to encourage local authorities to make sure the city’s relevant laws are followed.

“I will be working with police to make sure special attention is paid to tot lots,” he said, “and that laws prohibiting unaccompanied adults in playgrounds are enforced.”

Neither the city spokesman nor the Berkeley Police Department spokesman has responded to a request for further information about the subject.

[An earlier version of this story referred in the headline and article to the official charge against Turner, which is identified in court papers as “child molesting.” Court papers further identify the violation as Penal Code section 647.6(a)(1): annoying or molesting a child under 18, and the language in this story has been clarified to make sure that’s apparent.]

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...