Monday, June 15, 1998


Who's keeping tabs on sex offenders?
When predators are released back into the community, law enforcement must watch them and make sure they don't re-offend. In practice this supervision is inconsistently carried out.

By Kim Barker
The Spokesman-Review

On paper, it looks great.

The two Spokane police detectives who watch sex offenders are lauded nationally. The city is considered a model for managing sex offenders in the community. The state is a leader in pushing to tell neighbors when a dangerous sex offender moves next door.

The reality isn't as comforting:

  • Spokane County now has one registered sex offender for every 358 residents. That's more sex offenders per capita than six of the state's 10 largest counties. Four out of 10 sex offenders released here from prison were convicted in another county.
  • The way law enforcement notifies the public about sex criminals tends to mask the true number in the community. Authorities have told the public about 50 sex offenders now living here who they think are most likely to re-offend. That's less than 5 percent of all offenders registered.
  • Almost half of the high-risk sex offenders living downtown and in other Spokane neighborhoods are not under any kind of state supervision. And most don't get treatment for sexual deviancy or drug and alcohol abuse - treatment that experts say can reduce chances of re-offending.
  • The law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses is not uniformly enforced. Spokane police dedicate two detectives to tracking them down, but the sheriff's office has largely ignored a state law that requires deputies to verify addresses given by registered sex criminals.

    The numbers don't always add up. The state says at least 1,150 sex offenders are registered in Spokane County. The county Sheriff's Department says 1,341 offenders are registered - about 850 in the city and the rest in the county.

    The Sheriff's Department says there are 42 high-risk offenders in the city. Police say about 30 live in Spokane.

    Officials can't explain the discrepancies, except to say the county may be including people who have left or died.

    Many of these offenders will never be charged with a sex crime again. State studies show that only 12 percent of registered sex offenders are arrested for another sex crime.

    But the highest-risk offenders - particularly pedophiles - can be impossible to treat or control. Their crimes are particularly devastating to victims and families.

    Megan Kanka was 7 when she was raped and strangled by a neighbor in New Jersey who was a twice-convicted pedophile. Her death spurred a national movement to notify neighbors about sex offenders.

    "They prey on our children, who are totally defenseless," says Maureen Kanka, Megan's mother. "It's a life sentence for children who are abused. It's not something that goes away."

    Managing sex offenders is one of the hardest balancing acts in the corrections system.

    When the system works, neighbors, police and community corrections officers keep a close eye on offenders and flag those slipping into criminal conduct before there's another victim.

    When it doesn't, a dangerous sex offender is released with little notice, no supervision and few safeguards - except for registering an address.

    Alvin Muse left prison on April 13 and moved in with his brother in the Spokane Valley. Muse was 17 when he raped and robbed a 69-year-old woman in King County in 1978. He served his entire 20-year sentence with no time off for good behavior.

    Although labeled a high-risk sex offender, Muse was not under any supervision after his release. He had no treatment. No regular visits with community corrections officers. No regular lie-detector tests. No requirement that he stay away from children.

    Six weeks after his release, he was arrested again. Muse is charged with raping an 11- year-old boy in the apartment complex where they both live. Deputies say the boy's mother had left Muse and her son alone for 15 minutes.

    'They seem to attract people'

    Colin Mulvany - The Spokesman-Review
    Susan Gehring, 35, is a rarity. Just over 2 percent of the registered sex offenders in Spokane County are women. Gehring was convicted of raping her two sons, now 11 and 13, in 1993. In her apartment, two large framed school photos of the smiling boys hang on an otherwise empty wall. Gehring also carries the boys' pictures in her wallet. "Those are my babies," she says. Her oldest son is now a registered sex offender.

    Sex offenders in Spokane County work at downtown restaurants, asbestos-removal firms, construction companies. One teaches computer classes to adults. Some go to school, from junior high through college. They have children.

    More than 25 are women. One is a former doctor. There's a helicopter pilot, a Harley rider and a 79-year-old pedophile who doesn't want his name in the newspaper. "I've gotten this far in my life without my neighbors knowing what I've done," he says, sitting in a North Side home.

    The oldest sex offender registered here is 90. He was 82 when he molested an 8-year-old boy who lived three blocks away.

    The youngest is 12, convicted of raping a little girl and molesting her older sister in his foster home.

    One offender, now 13, first registered when he was 9. He's the youngest person in the state ever labeled a registered sex offender.

    In prison, sex offenders are often model inmates. They typically are more educated and more employable. Many are compliant, eager to please. They are often charismatic.

    "It's amazing how many friends a sex offender can make," says Gheorghe Turcin, a community corrections officer for the Department of Corrections who supervises 35 sex offenders. "They're open. They're talkative. They seem to attract people."

    In 1997, about 20 percent of sex offenders served their time in jail instead of prison.

    About 25 percent served their time in the community, in a program called the Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative, which blends therapy, lie-detector tests and supervision.

    The only people eligible are first-time offenders guilty of crimes that carry less than 11 years in prison. They pay about $300 a month. If they violate conditions of the program, they can be sent to jail or prison.

    Sex-offender treatment is not a cure. It's supposed to help offenders manage their impulses. Many aren't eligible for treatment, because they won't acknowledge their problem.

    In prison, about half of the convicted sex offenders get treatment. The 200-bed prison program is housed at Twin Rivers Corrections Center near Monroe.

    There were 470 inmates on the program's waiting list five years ago. Last month, the number was 1,211.

    'Levels aren't accurate'

    Washington was the first state in the country to notify neighbors about dangerous sex offenders. The 1990 law also requires offenders to register their addresses when they are released from prison and every time they move.

    The law established a three-tiered system for offenders, with the highest ranking, Level III, considered the most dangerous.

    The media are notified about Level III offenders - but only when they first come to Spokane.

    Neighbors are told about Level III and II offenders - at least in the city. In the county, the sheriff's office isn't as consistent about notification.

    Only law enforcement is told about Level I offenders, who account for about 95 percent of all sex criminals in Spokane County. The public never hears about them when they're released.

    Setting sex offender levels is more judgment than science.

    Colin Mulvany - The Spokesman-Review
    Chris Silva Jr., a 23-year-old sex offender, lives in the Merlin Hotel with his pregnant girlfriend, Marissa Bolick. The two met at the House of Charity earlier this year and plan to get married. "He's stayed out of trouble since he moved in with me," Bolick says. "She keeps me in line," Silva says. He has been convicted of rape and indecent exposure.

    Chris Silva Jr. is a Level I. He is also an "extremely high risk to community safety," community corrections officer Luann Kawata wrote in a violation report last October.

    Silva, who is 23, raped a woman while she worked at a downtown hotel. Since he was released from jail in September 1996, he's been arrested twice for exposing himself.

    Two days after he was released on the first indecent exposure, he was found masturbating while sitting on the stairs by the Spokane County Public Safety Building.

    "Levels aren't accurate," says Larry Kuciemba, a polygrapher who gives offenders lie detector tests as part of their community supervision.

    "It's really difficult to categorize human beings," says Glen Shaw, a community corrections supervisor. "Overall, the levels are probably pretty good indicators. But sometimes a Level I can be a real big threat."

    Byron Scherf was a Level 1 offender.

    He held a knife to a Pierce County woman in 1978 and tried to rape her. He was 19, and was sent to prison on a second-degree assault charge.

    Scherf was released in August 1980. In June 1981, he kidnapped a Pierce County woman, raped her, doused her with gasoline and lit her on fire.

    He served 12 years in prison and was released to Spokane County from Airway Heights Corrections Center in December 1993.

    Upon his release, Spokane police decided Scherf was a low risk to the community.

    "He came in and talked to me," says Spokane police Detective Jerry Keller, the sex-crimes officer who assigned Scherf his level. "Even though he had a hideous crime in Tacoma, everybody came to bat for him. They called him a model sex offender, a model inmate."

    Scherf took lie-detector tests every three months. He saw a therapist once a week. He was enrolled at Eastern Washington University and got good grades.

    In October 1995, he abducted and raped real-estate agent Barbara Bell, after making an appointment with her to see a home. This time he got life in prison without parole.

    A web of supervision

    Timothy Beuk shows how supervision can help prevent new crimes.

    Beuk raped a 4-year-old girl in Pierce County and sexually abused a 9-year-old boy in Alabama. The Level III offender was released from Airway Heights prison to Spokane County in 1996 and placed under state supervision for one year.

    He's had several violations, which have stretched out his supervision until December. Beuk's latest one came in April. Before taking a lie detector test, Beuk admitted to the polygrapher that he'd talked with minors - once in a downtown apartment building and once in Riverfront Park.

    That violation of his supervision sent Beuk back to Pierce County, where he's asking for a hearing.

    Supervision usually lasts one to three years, though some experts want lifetime supervision for dangerous offenders.

    The system uses therapy, polygraph tests, community corrections officers, law enforcement and community awareness to identify warning signs and prevent offenders from slipping back into crime.

    Almost half of the Level II and III sex offenders in Spokane County are not under supervision because they've either finished their sentences or committed their crimes when supervision wasn't required.

    One-third of the serious offenders under supervision are only required to pay money for restitution and tell the Department of Corrections where they live.

    The rest under supervision come with a hodge-podge of requirements, set by a judge.

    Of Turcin's caseload, about half are required to get lie-detector tests. About 40 percent aren't allowed to have pornography. About 70 percent aren't allowed to drink alcohol or go to bars.

    There is no consistency, and that often leaves people who work with sex offenders frustrated.

    "Not having the right tools to supervise - it's very scary," says Franz Griffin, a community corrections officer who supervises sex offenders. "They're real cunning. If they could crawl into a hole, they would. By checking them, it lets them know we're still watching."

    Donald Torkelson, a Level III sex offender who raped five children, got out of prison in February 1994. He was required only to pay restitution, but community corrections officer Kawata supervised him on a voluntary basis for about three years. "It was not a matter of if Mr. Torkelson would re-offend," she explains. "It was when."

    Still, without formal supervision, he was no longer required to take polygraph tests or have intense monitoring.

    Torkelson was arrested last June and charged with raping two developmentally disabled teenagers. He is awaiting trial.

    No place to live

    High-risk sex offenders are so vilified that even the state work-release program won't take them. Most landlords won't rent to Level II and Level III offenders.

    The Union Gospel Mission no longer accepts them, and Level I offenders have to remain in the building for 30 days, unless they have an escort.

    The House of Charity is one of the few places in town that will take sex offenders, no questions asked. At least one Level III sex offender has registered his address there in the past.

    Homeless sex offenders are becoming a statewide problem.

    "They end up stacked like cordwood in missions and as homeless," says Robert Schilling, who leads the Seattle Police Department's sex-offender unit. "These are the last people we want in missions and as homeless."

    Almost one-third of the Level III sex offenders in Spokane live in the Otis Hotel, at the corner of Madison and West First downtown. The Otis is known among prison inmates as a place where sex offenders are welcome, as long as they behave themselves.

    More than one-third live in other downtown apartment buildings, Browne's Addition or just north of downtown. One man lives in his car, parked between the Spokane River and Gonzaga University.

    The rest are sprinkled across the city, the Valley and who knows where. At least three are missing.

    About six Level III offenders registered in Spokane County are in jail. Three are in prison.

    Police prefer that sex offenders live in a place like the Otis. They can be watched more easily as a group, few children live downtown and neighbors don't complain.

    Police issued a flier about a year ago when John Schickling, a Level III sex offender, moved into the Otis.

    "The next day I was down at the Plaza playing the piano," Schickling says. "It didn't make any difference. Nobody ever said anything. Not word one."

    It's difficult even for Level I sex offenders to find a home. Affiliated Information Resources screens potential tenants for about 85 percent of property managers and owners in Spokane. The company always checks whether an applicant is a registered sex offender.

    "Most of our managers don't want to rent to any sex offenders," says Todd Smelcer, director of risk management. "It's because of the liability."

    Finding a place to live is just one obstacle.

    Sex offenders also aren't accepted in drug and alcohol treatment unless they get sexual therapy - something many serious offenders refuse.

    Calvin Mines, a Level III offender, finished serving five years in March for raping and assaulting a woman in Island County. He blames his past behavior on alcohol and drugs.

    Mines was required to go to Treatment Alternatives for Street Crime, a program that randomly tests offenders for drugs and alcohol and refers them to therapy.

    But the program released Mines after 30 days, because he won't enroll in sexual therapy.

    "Unless they're doing something to treat that sex-offending problem, we generally don't want them here," says Andy DeMarco, the director of Treatment Alternatives.

    Police keep a watchful eye

    Once a month, police detectives Jerry Keller and Dennis Walter check on the homes of about 45 Level II and Level III sex offenders living in the city.

    They organize other police to check on more than 800 Level I sex offenders in Spokane at least once a year.

    Volunteers at Spokane COPS shops pass out fliers on serious offenders, going door-to-door. People can visit any COPS shop in the city and flip through a book of Level II and Level III offenders.

    The goal is to be proactive, to keep the community informed and to catch someone quicker.

    In one offender's home, Keller saw three children and a Barbie jeep. After further investigation, the man was arrested for child rape. He's still in prison.

    In 1992, 80 percent of all Spokane offenders weren't living at their registered address. Now, about 33 percent aren't where they say.

    Spokane police have been recognized for their work with sex offenders. The city has been named one of 10 resource sites by the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the U.S. Justice Department that's trying to find the best ways to manage sex offenders.

    The Justice Department project spurred a new committee of police, community corrections officers, therapists, lawyers and others looking for better ways to watch sex offenders.

    "Checking on addresses - you can make it sound very minor and unworthy of public funds," says Roxanne Lieb, director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which has studied sex offender data and laws.

    "If you describe that same behavior as two people thinking and caring and worrying about sex offenders and their access to potential victims in the area, that sounds quite different."

    The penalty for failing to register an address isn't great - often only 30 or 90 days in jail.

    Police charged child molester Darin Putnam with failing to register as a sex offender last year.

    The case was dismissed in November for lack of evidence, despite two people who said Putnam didn't live where he said.

    In February, he was arrested for exposing himself in front of two Spokane girls. He pleaded guilty to indecent exposure and is scheduled to be released from jail on June 26.

    'We're the last to know'

    Sex offender monitoring outside the city limits is a different story.

    The Sheriff's Department hasn't been following the law, which has required the department since 1996 to register and verify all addresses countywide for sex offenders.

    At the very least, the department is required to send certified letters to offenders each year, and follow up on those who don't respond. That process is starting only now.

    Last year, the department made 151 home visits - about 27 percent of the visits that should have been made. Of those 151 offenders, 59 didn't live where they said.

    There was little follow-up. The sheriff referred two of those cases to the prosecutor's office. City police referred 26 last year.

    That means the Sheriff's Department knew registered sex offenders weren't living where they said, but did nothing.

    Sgt. Ron Ethridge, a sex crimes detective whose unit is also responsible for investigating rapes and molestations, knew about the 1996 law.

    Deputies regularly check on the few Level II and Level III offenders who live in the unincorporated part of the county, Ethridge says. He says he doesn't have enough people to check the rest.

    Ethridge has sent memos to his bosses over the past three years asking for help. Volunteers were burning out, he wrote. Even if sex offenders weren't where they said they lived, the department didn't have the resources for follow-up, he complained. He worried about department liability.

    Ethridge says his unit has focused on investigating sex crimes rather than registrations.

    "They want us to step up the pace," he says. "I've been chomping for three years to step up the pace. We don't have the manpower to step up the pace. I'm getting ulcers and pulling my hair out."

    Sheriff John Goldman says he didn't know about the 1996 law until April of this year. In May, Goldman asked county commissioners for more than $180,000 to pay for two deputies and a detective to handle sex offender registration.

    Commissioners are considering the request. They're also considering contracting with Affiliated Information Resources, the tenant screening company, to verify sex offender addresses for about $75,000 a year.

    Volunteers at the SCOPE sheriff's substations - the sheriff's equivalent to COPS shops - say they don't go door-to-door to warn neighbors about a sex offender in the area. In fact, they say they're rarely given fliers on serious sex offenders.

    At the Deer Park substation, a lone notification on Putnam hangs from the wall. The notification, announcing that Putnam lives in Chattaroy, has been up since December.

    "We're the last to know," says JoAnne Watkins, a volunteer at the Deer Park office, who didn't hear that he was back in jail.

    Clifford McLaughlin lives within a half block of Muse, the man accused of molesting a boy within two months of his prison release. Nobody came by his house and told him anything, he says.

    "It's their responsibility to go around and warn people," McLaughlin says. "Nobody's been here. I think that's wrong."

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  • Also in this report
  • Who's keeping tabs on sex offenders?
  • By the numbers: Classifying sex offenders
  • Offender next door
  • Kids who prey on kids
  • Someone they trusted
  • Part one of six