Tag: collateral damage

The “Predator” Granny Next Door

restaurant-small1by Michael M.

[The following is a true story, published with permission, which has had significant and lasting consequences for everyone involved. The names and some minor details have been changed to protect those individuals from further harm and stigmatization.]

In 2003, JoAnne Hester was a 39-year old married mother of three children, carving out a typical small-town existence in a rural county of the State of Virginia.  As a working mom, she certainly had her fair share of parental challenges, but the most vexing problem in recent months was her oldest child.

JoAnne’s 14-year old son Erik had been going over to the house next door an awful lot over the past few months, which seemed extremely odd, since there were no other kids living there – just Brenda Mears, a 28-year old divorcee who seemed to have way too much free time on her hands. When JoAnne confronted Erik about it, he claimed that Brenda was teaching him how to do scrapbooking, a hobby he’d never shown any interest in previously.

mom-sonSkeptical, JoAnne told Erik that he was not to spend any more time at Brenda’s house, a decree that angered him, but which he grudgingly accepted.  Even so, just a few days later, JoAnne saw him exiting Brenda’s front door one afternoon and confronted him about it.  There was a shouting match on the front lawn punctuated with sharp denials from Erik and escalating threats of punishment and loss of privileges from JoAnne.  By the end of the confrontation, Erik was grounded for a month.  JoAnne naively thought that would put a stop to his increasingly out-of-control behavior.  She was wrong.

Two weeks later, on her way down the hallway to the bathroom at three in the morning, JoAnne found Erik’s bedroom empty.  In a fit of anger, she called the local police. When they arrived, she told them that her son was most likely next door, ensconced in Brenda’s bed.  The policemen went next door and pounded on Brenda’s front door.  After what seemed like several minutes of knocking, Brenda answered, wearing only a robe.  After some questioning, she admitted that the boy was in the house.  They took the boy aside, and questioned him, too.  His responses must have been damning, because a short time afterward, the officers arrested Brenda for carnal knowledge of a minor.

Next, the officers spoke to JoAnne and asked how long this had been going on.  Without thinking for a moment that she, herself, could become the target of a police investigation, she replied that Erik’s suspicious visits to Brenda’s place had been going on for at least three or four months.  After a huddled conversation amongst themselves, the officers advised JoAnne that she was being arrested for failing to report a sex crime in a timely manner, a sub-section of the state law against indecent liberties with a child by custodial or supervisory relationship.  By legislative decree, that charge is classified as a “violent” felony.  Her son Erik was also taken into custody at that time and placed in juvenile detention.

A few months later, while still in the county jail, JoAnne sat in a bare cubicle and listened in disbelief as her attorney advised her to accept a plea bargain that was being offered by the State’s Attorney.  The proposed deal would result in a maximum twelve-month prison sentence, her attorney explained, rather than risk a possible twenty-years-to-life sentence by going to trial.  Though her head may have been spinning at the time, to the best of her recollection, JoAnne swears that her lawyer never told her that accepting this guilty plea would require her to register as a violent sex offender for the rest of her life.  She just knew that a maximum of twelve months sounded a hell of a lot better than a minimum of twenty years in prison.

WOMEN-N-JAIL-1She took the plea.  She spent twelve months in a state prison as a model prisoner.  Thirty days prior to her release, her prison caseworker informed her for the first time that she would be placed on the state registry upon her release.  She says she was blindsided by this news, and she spent her last month in prison in a daze of stunned disbelief.

That was fifteen years ago, and JoAnne is still on VADOC probation and considered a violent sex offender by the state.  Due to other hardships in her family she is now raising four of her six grandchildren, and yet she isn’t allowed to take them to school or pick them up, can’t attend any school sporting events or recitals, can’t take them to play at the park or swim in the community pool, and can’t take them trick-or-treating.

She’s happily married, but the hardships of being on the sex offender registry have taken a terrible toll on her relationship with her husband, who is also affected by the irrational residency restrictions, endless humiliation and harassment from the community, and the added expense and hassles of having to arrange for others to take the kids where they need to go every day.  She can petition the state to allow her on school property,  but the process is a lengthy one, and may be denied.

JoAnne suffers her fate in relative silence, fully aware that most people will simply assume that because she is classified as a violent sex offender that she must therefore be a predator of the highest magnitude and worthy of the scorn that they heap upon her and her family.  The public is largely unaware that 83% of the sex crimes under VA law are classified as “violent,” whether they involved any actual violence, or not.

She and her husband are barely making ends meet financially, which means that pursuing a legal remedy for her situation will be difficult, if not impossible.  She tells her story to anyone who will listen, but nothing changes.  If anything, the restrictions and persecution have only gotten worse for her over the past few years.  The one island of stability in their lives has been the fact that they have been able to stay in their home. Virginia has 500 foot residency restrictions, unlike many states which have 2000 or 2500 foot restrictions which often force registrants out of their homes and into homelessness.

The people on the sex offender registry are individuals, each with a story to tell.  Their crimes are incredibly diverse – sometimes laughable, other times horrifying.  Registrants exist on a spectrum ranging from the seven-year old who gets caught playing doctor with his little sister on one end to the psychopath who rapes and murders strangers for kicks at the other end of the spectrum.

The great majority of registrants are at neither of those extremes.  Most are simply common people who have made some extraordinarily bad decisions, people who have paid an enormous price for their mistakes, and now simply want a chance to rebuild their post-incarceration lives free of fear, harassment, or discrimination.

Keeping them shamed, unemployed, or homeless serves no purpose but vengeance, and makes our communities less safe for everyone.

The SO Registry’s Deadly Collateral Damage

restaurant-small1by Michael M., NARSOL & The Registry Report

It is easy for some people to feel that no matter how oppressive the hardships imposed upon former sex offenders may be, they probably deserved it.  The most common refrain we see posted by unsympathetic social media commenters typically contains some variation of, “He (or she) should have thought of that before they committed their crimes!”  While such a response may be emotionally satisfying for the person who makes such a statement, the unspoken assumption is that any punishment, no matter how cruel, can be justified by the fact that you’ve committed a crime, no matter how trivial.  Oh, so you were beheaded for jaywalking?  Well, you should have thought about that before you stepped outside the crosswalk!

It also completely ignores the plight of the innocent bystanders who often bear the brunt of our country’s draconian sex offender registration laws. The families, friends, employers, landlords, and associates of former sex offenders often become the unintended casualties of the current wave of anti-sex-offender hysteria sweeping the nation.  Recent studies have begun referring to these tangential victims as “collateral damage,” as if we were talking about accidentally backing the car into the neighbor’s mailbox, rather than the complete destruction of innocent people’s lives.

By the way, it isn’t just the families and associates of sex offenders who suffer.  Most of the states will admit that their sex offender registries are difficult to maintain and contain inaccuracies.  One study discovered that as many as 25% of the addresses on the registry were incorrect, which resulted in the addresses of family homes where no one was a registered sex offender being listed on the registry.  A Detroit, Michigan couple didn’t learn that their address was incorrectly listed on the registry until they tried to sell their home.  They reported the error to the local police, who told them that nothing could be done about the problem until they tracked down the former owner who bought the house three years previously from a registered sex offender.

sign1In Cleveland, Ohio at least one large real estate brokerage’s property questionnaire includes the question, “Have you ever been notified that a registered sex offender was living in the neighborhood?”  Say yes, and your property value may plunge.  In other words, you don’t have to be a sex offender; you don’t even have to know a sex offender, to be “collaterally damaged” by social hysteria.

For the families of former sex offenders, it can be much, much worse.

evictionOne eleven-year old juvenile sex offender’s profile popped up during their landlord’s internet search for offenders, and the boy’s family was given two days to move out of their home.  In Fallon, Nevada, a registrant’s failure to update his information in the registry resulted in news stories which, in turn, led to death threats, burglary, and vandalism against his innocent wife.

The 8-year old daughter of a registered sex offender whose offense was 31 years in the past found herself at the center of a public outcry when her school sent out information about area sex offenders in 2007.  She immediately began feeling the effects of being disinvited from events and shunned by friends. The following year, in middle school, she became the constant target of sexual harassment and lewd propositions.  Eventually, her family left the country in 2013 to escape the persecution.

Research into the “collateral damage” suffered by family members of RSOs reveals that 49% often felt afraid for their own safety as a result of their family member being on the registry.  66% said that shame and embarrassment often kept them from participating in community activities, and 77% experienced feelings of isolation as a result.

aloneThe children of RSOs report alarmingly high rates of suicide ideation, with 13% exhibiting suicidal tendencies. Other reported consequences of being the child of an RSO include harassment (47%), ridicule (59%), physical assaults (22%), depression (77%), and anger (80%).

Sadly, one needn’t be related to a sex offender in any way to be “collaterally damaged.”  A widely reported recent story from Kissimmee, Florida, featured a man who poured gasoline into the motel room and vehicle of four persons he believed to be registered sex offenders with the intent of “barbecuing all the child molesters.”  Two of his intended victims were not RSOs.

In Dallas, Texas, a man who had just moved into an apartment that had recently been vacated by an RSO was mistaken for the previous tenant by a vigilante and beaten with a baseball bat.  In another Dallas case, a man who was mistaken for an RSO was beaten by four men and had his teeth knocked out as his attackers shouted “Child molester!”

In Kern County, California, a 32-year old man was stabbed at least 50 times and his body dumped in the desert after a Facebook rumor falsely alleged that he was a sex offender.

body-outline.jpegA Las Vegas man shot and killed two homeless people because one of them (Alfred Wilhelm, age 53) was an RSO stemming from a 1984 rape conviction in Hawaii.  The second victim (Rhonda Ballow, 27) was an innocent bystander who was killed simply for being a witness to the first murder.

In 2013, a husband and wife team of vigilantes in South Carolina told RSO Charles Parker, 59, “I’m here to kill you because you’re a child molester” before killing him. They then killed his wife, Gretchen Parker, 51, simply because she lived in the same house. Both were shot and stabbed multiple times.

These examples are not as isolated or anomalous as some would have you believe.  We often hear that victims of sexual abuse are afraid to come forward for fear of being disbelieved, but rarely do we consider the fact that victims of registry “collateral damage” are often reluctant to tell their stories for fear of being targeted for further vigilantism and harassment.  For every case that gets reported to law enforcement, there could potentially be dozens more that are endured in silence. Police reports are a matter of public record and are often reported in local news media. What sane person would want to invite even more scrutiny and abuse?

As long as the media continues to stoke the public’s vitriolic anti-sex-offender hysteria and as long as our government continues to furnish vigilantes with a convenient “hit list” (which may or may not even be accurate), absolutely no one is safe from becoming “collateral damage.”