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Published: Sunday, 6/30/2002

Predators among us

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

(FIRST OF TWO PARTS)

Shannon Soldner is a forgiving person who believes in the power of prison and the promise of rehabilitation.

But Ms. Soldner often brings her 5-year-old daughter with her to the West Toledo apartment complex she helps manage. Unknowingly, she recently rented an apartment to a convicted child molester.

“I'm sorry,” she said after learning of the tenant's conviction, “he just can't live here.

“It's a personal dilemma for me,” she added. “I understand he wants to start his life over and this might prevent that. But [my daughter] was with me the day I showed him the place. That's scary.”

That means that tenant, Dennis Hill, now faces a dilemma, too.

Standing outside his door, Hill said his public label as a sexual predator once again cost him a place to live. The man who in 1984 was convicted of one of two counts of raping two young boys, glared toward the management office, gripping a rectangular pink eviction notice.

“I have rights, too,” he said.

Hill and Ms. Soldner represent a tiny sampling of the offenders, citizens, law enforcement officials, attorneys, landlords, judges, and lawmakers who are still hashing out the boundaries of Ohio's “Megan's Law” five years after it went into effect on July 1, 1997.

The law is named for Megan Nicole Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered by a neighbor her family later learned was a twice-convicted sex offender. Partly in response to the outrage the case generated, Congress in 1996 required all states receiving federal crime control funds to release information to the public about convicted sex offenders.

Under Ohio's version, House Bill 180, each of the state's 8,055 registered sex offenders are placed in one of three classifications based on their actions and must register with the county sheriff according to their classification. Some offenders must check in every 90 days for the rest of their lives; others once a year for 10 years.

Among Ohio's offenders, 943 were listed as sexual predators — the most dangerous registrants — as of Monday. Habitual offenders accounted for 311 registrants, and there are 6,801 sexually oriented offenders, or the lowest-risk registrants. It's the responsibility of county sheriff's offices to register the offenders and to notify neighbors, schools, and day-care centers of their presence.

Failing to register earns an offender a return trip to prison for an additional six to 12 months, depending on the seriousness of the original charge. Pending legislation could increase that penalty.

But questions linger and the law is still evolving and fraught with holes, confusion, and varying interpretations.

“I think a lot of legislators, a lot of people, thought this was going to be a panacea,” Judge William Skow of Lucas County Common Pleas said. “It isn't.”

Perhaps the most dangerous, some fear Megan's Law — intended as a sort of tracking device for the country's sex offenders — may have lulled citizens nationwide into a false sense of security. For the most part, its effectiveness is only as strong as an offender's willingness to comply with it.

That's especially true in more urban places, like Lucas County, where the list of offenders had grown to 385 offenders by early last week.

“Unless you put an ankle bracelet on these folks, you can't truly track every single movement,” conceded Lucas County Sheriff James Telb.

Albert Waters is a terrifying example.

Accused in Arkansas of three separate rape cases, Waters was convicted in 1995 of holding a co-worker against her will at an Arkansas hotel, beating and raping her. He was released from prison in March, 2001, after serving six years, and was classified as a high-risk offender.

Earlier this year, Waters was in handcuffs again — this time for raping a 76-year-old woman in her Toledo home.

Arkansas authorities didn't know he'd left. Lucas County authorities didn't know he'd arrived. His victim didn't know of his past and invited him into her home.

In Little Rock, Sgt. Vicky Williams said she began to worry about Waters' vanishing act when authorities filed a warrant April 19 for his arrest for failing to register.

“When they disappear, my mind wonders what they're doing and why they haven't registered,” Sergeant Williams said.

Toledoan Stanley Rink did register; he faces sex-offense charges again too.

The man, who in 1998 raped a 5-year-old girl, is accused of raping a 9-year-old girl after striking up a relationship with her family.

Police say he raped the girl in her bedroom this spring, then went to a sex offender program required by the court. Because he didn't have the $35 required for the session, he eventually went home. Officers appeared at his door later that night; a trial is scheduled for Aug. 8.

Toledo police Detective Anne Smith investigated both cases.

“Neither of these guys played by the rules,” Detective Smith said. “How does Megan's Law protect us against them?”

Each of the 50 states has a version of the law; more than two dozen have placed their lists of registered offenders on the Internet. Many states require law enforcement officials to alert neighbors if an offender moves into their neighborhood.

In Lucas County, that's Deputy Ernie Lamb's job.

“When I first started doing this, I didn't want to let my daughter go out of the house ever again,” he said, only half-jokingly. “You get to thinking there's more of them than us.”

Lucas County isn't alone in trying to keep up with its swelling list of offenders. Ms. Soldner and Hill aren't alone in trying to sort out the law's boundaries.

Court challenges to various versions of Megan's Law are pending across the country, including two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In an Alaska case, two offenders question the retroactivity of the law because they committed their crimes prior to the establishment of the state's list. In Connecticut, an offender complained that he was placed on the list without a hearing to challenge the decision.

In Ohio, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the Cuyahoga County sheriff's office on behalf of four offenders who said the humiliation caused by their inclusion on the sheriff's web page punished them a second time for their crime.

Just last month, a federal judge ruled Michigan's registry was unconstitutional. Michigan State Police shut down the system and its Web site the next day.

Until last week, even law enforcement was unable to access information about the state's 29,300 offenders, Michigan State Police Capt. Jack Shepherd said.

“The beauty of [the list],” Captain Shepherd said, “is that if we're on patrol on a college campus, say, and someone emerges from the weeds and there's no warrants but they're on the list, it may cause us to have a different line of questioning. ‘Wait, you're listed on the sex registry. What are you doing out here at 2 a.m.? And don't tell me you're looking for your lost dog.'”

U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts in Detroit issued an order last week that allows Michigan law enforcement agencies to continue enforcing registration and tracking provisions of the sex offender registry, but continues for now to prevent public access to the list.

“There's an argument to made,” said Genna Gent, a spokeswoman for the Michigan attorney general's office, “that [the court ruling] makes keeping Michigan's families safe a challenge.”

One problem with the Michigan registry was that it didn't differentiate between offenders. A teenager having consensual sex with an underage teenager, for example, was listed along with violent rapists and child molesters.

Though the judge lifted the ban on the system earlier this week for law enforcement access, the publicly accessible Internet site remains off-line.

For now, Ohio's registry remains intact.

The state recently spent $1.2 million for computers linking prisons, sheriff's departments, and state crime labs to its statewide database. With the information just keystrokes away, representatives from sheriff's departments in most rural northwest Ohio counties say they have few problems managing their own lists of a few dozen offenders.

“We know these people. They come in and call me by name,” said Brandon Kromer, a corrections officer who is in charge of Wyandot County's list. “A sexual offender can't slip through the cracks here.”

Yet glitches remain.

In larger counties, it's next to impossible to ensure that every resident knows whether a sex offender lives next door.

As a test, The Blade recently interviewed neighbors of three people in Toledo identified by Ohio's registry standards as sexual predators. In two cases, adjacent neighbors were notified of a sex offender's presence and spread the word among other neighbors.

“Maybe he's been rehabilitated,” said Ed Johansen, who lives a street away from a predator but heard about it through neighbors. “But we're not going to take that chance.”

Nicholas Stolarski said he didn't know that his neighbor of several months in Toledo's Old West End had spent time in prison for a sex offense. In fact, the former inmate served 15 years for attacking two women.

“I had no idea,” Mr. Stolarski told The Blade. “I'm glad to know now.”

Then there are the lingering legal questions that have emerged from the recent tweaking in the Ohio law that increases the notification requirement to neighbors up to 1,000 feet away.

“Where do we measure 1,000 feet? From the front door? From the center of the property?” asked Paulding County Sheriff David Harrow, who hand delivers notifications to neighbors. “It sounds like a small thing, maybe, but it makes a big difference in who gets to know.

“It's a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situation,” Sheriff Harrow added. “If you don't do enough and something happens, you can be sued. If you notify too much, then it gives the predator a reason to take you to court.”

The sheriff doesn't disagree with the intent of Ohio's version of Megan's Law. “We just want some guidelines,” he said.

Lucas County Sheriff's Lt. Bob Bensen agreed.

In his tiny room at the county sheriff's office, Lieutenant Bensen's printer spits out the seemingly endless stream of letters, notifications, registry forms, and updated offender lists. A separate address file lists the county's 993 day care centers, seven school districts, the local Catholic Diocese, presidents of two colleges and one university, and other officials.

Then there's nearly 20 different police agencies, and even campus security departments he must notify.

“Keeping up with all this can be a real nightmare,” Lieutenant Bensen said.

Take the case of Edward Alderson.

On Nov. 13, the 46-year-old man was released from prison to the Cherry Street Mission in Toledo after serving time for the 1981 kidnap and rape of a 12-year-old girl from her backyard. His release set off the first 89 notification letters in an onslaught of paperwork that would follow his every move.

Two days later, Alderson moved to St. Paul's Community Center. Another 89 letters went out. He moved again in January to North Toledo, and then moved again from shelter to shelter on May 20, May 28, and on June 20. Each time, the letters followed.

“I have a handful of people like that,” Lieutenant Bensen said. “There are days when all I do for an entire shift is paperwork. The list isn't going to get any shorter any time soon, and our other work just keeps backing up.”

A pile of manila file folders and his department-issue Smith & Wesson 9mm at his side, Lucas County Deputy Lamb has criss-crossed Lucas County more times than he cares to count.

In some ways, his job is like the old carnival game where the critters pop out of holes on the game table. The faster a player smacks them back into their holes, the faster the others pop back up.

His “game board,” though, is 340 square miles of Lucas County. And the list of offenders keeps growing.

“I'll go out today and hit ten or 15 homes,” Deputy Lamb said, sitting on the front seat of his Crown Victoria cruiser one recent sweltering morning. “I can go back and have another 20 files waiting on my desk.”

In contrast, sheriff's representatives in more rural communities said they simply check on their handful of serious offenders while they're on road patrol or even on their way to or from work. They see them at the store or run into their parents or relatives.

“It's a small enough county,” said Henry County Lt. Richard Alvord. “I could tell you where everyone is right now.”

But there's still a mountain of paperwork, even in a place like Hancock County, which has just two dozen low-level offenders and one predator.

Registering an offender involves identifying and contacting the appropriate police agency, dusting off old files, and consulting with local officials to determine how to classify offenders from out of state — especially when their classification there doesn't fit into Ohio's three levels.

The whole process can take days, said Hancock County Deputy Sheriff Keith Hendricks.

“We're talking monstrous man hours, paperwork, and computer time each time these guys move,” he said. “You're burying your wheels, just spinning and going nowhere.”

It's such an involved process, Ohio's lawmakers are considering making offenders pay for the work — up to $100 for the most dangerous offenders each time they register.

Back in Lucas County, Deputy Lamb recently ducked under a collection of wind chimes at one East Toledo home and pounded on the door. A man answered, rubbing heavy eyes.

“Just verifying your address,” Deputy Lamb said cheerily.

“Yeah,” the 20-year-old offender mumbled.

That's it. Just a few seconds later, the deputy was back in his car.

In most cases, it's not always this easy. More often than not, no one is home when Deputy Lamb goes to verify new addresses.

That's what happened one recent morning: eight homes, eight unanswered doors. So at the end of the morning, what had he accomplished?

“I've covered my [self],” he said, pulling into his parking spot in front of the county jail. “That's all I've done, but you can't get frustrated. It's all the price of doing business. You can't not check on them.”

Beyond its practical shortcomings, Megan's Law sometimes causes nettlesome situations for those in no way affiliated with law enforcement, though their questions often end up being posed to local sheriff's offices.

For example, how much disclosure is required if you're selling a home next door to an offender? Do landlords have to tell tenants or prospective renters about nearby offenders?

Ohio's property disclosure form demands information on things like lead-based paint and leaky roofs. It doesn't mandate information about a sex offender, said Carl Horst, spokesman for the Ohio Board of Realtors.

“What I assume is that most of the licensees are operating under the philosophy that disclosure is the best policy,” Mr. Horst said.

To be safe, it is the job of the homebuyer to check out a prospective neighborhood and ask for details, Mr. Horst and local real-estate agents said.

“It's not my job to say, ‘The third house down the street, there's a bad guy.' But what we might say is: ‘There's a person in the neighborhood who is an offender,' ” said David Browning, president of Welles Bowen Realtors in Toledo.

“For us, it's a difficult rope to straddle,” Mr. Browning said. “Our job is not to create a Salem witch hunt. But at the same time, if there's water in the basement, or whatever, I need to make a potential buyer aware of it.”

Even those in Ohio who otherwise applaud Megan's Law seem somewhat squeamish about one of the most recent developments — adding juvenile offenders to the list.

The Buckeye state's treatment of its youngest criminals has been one that leans toward rehabilitation rather than lockup and privacy rather than publicity.

But beginning this year, a convicted sex offender in Ohio as young as 14 might have to register too.

Though the law prohibits their inclusion in lists on the Internet, the county sheriff must take detailed information from the juvenile offender and the parents and make community notification about the worst offenders.

“The legislature's preference is not for detention, but for treatment,” said Capt. Eileen Bensen of the Lucas County sheriff's office. “Then wouldn't one of the things you'd want to do to get this kid's life back on the straight and narrow is not to make him a pariah?”

Children Services officials statewide worry that releasing sex-offender information could stymie a child's chances of finding foster care.

“If you're a foster parent, do you want to take a registered sex offender when the school and everyone else is going to know who's living with you?” said Rod Brandt, spokesman for Lucas County Children Services.

Experience has shown that some of the most dangerous young sex offenders are going to commit more crimes, said Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, legislative director for the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. In those cases, the public's right to protect themselves outweighs a foster parent's desire not to have their address released to the public, she said.

“It's not a perfect law,” Ms. Tenenbaum said. “I think it is as fair as it possibly it can be.”

Where Megan's Law goes from here is unclear. Questions remain about it, both from outside and inside law enforcement circles.

What happens when a sex offender moves into a nursing home or hospital when they're old? Who gets notified then? Exactly who gets notified if an offender goes to a college or university out of state?

What happens now if an offender in Michigan, where the list has been shut down, moves to Ohio?

What about the rights to privacy of the parents of a juvenile sex offender?

Despite the concerns, Sheriff Telb and others said the law does what it was intended to do: raise awareness of dangerous predators among us and put them on notice that the community is watching.

“I know it's difficult. I know it's frustrating. And I know we have people running around all over the place to keep an eye on them,” he said. “But we've probably kept some folks from becoming victims, and that makes it all worth it.”

TOMORROW: Debates between the rights of offenders and the public become personal.



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