By Shoshana Walter
Lobbyist, victim will meet with officials Monday; better laws may result.
BARTOW - Commissioners are rethinking the county's sex offender ordinance, starting with a visit Monday from lobbyist Ron Book and his daughter Lauren Book-Lim.
The duo helped usher in harsher restrictions on sex offenders, including residency rules like Polk's, adopted by cities and counties across the state. Book-Lim's experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her childhood nanny helped win widespread support.
But in the past year, Book has changed his perspective and begun rallying for changes. Miami-Dade County adopted those changes last week, and now Book and his daughter are hoping to exact some influence on Polk County.
Commissioner Randy Wilkinson said the pair will meet for about an hour Monday with the Public Safety Coordinating Council. Afterward, the council, comprised of Sheriff Grady Judd, Commissioner Sam Johnson, judges, and officials from the Public Defender and State Attorney's offices, may make recommendations to the County Commission about possible changes to the county's ordinance.
State law requires offenders to live at least 1,000 feet away from schools, day-care centers, parks, playgrounds and public libraries.
It also allows local governments, such as Polk, to impose stricter requirements.
In Polk, sex offenders and predators are not allowed to live within 2,500 feet of schools, day-care centers, parks, playgrounds and public libraries. The ordinance also forbids predators from living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops and churches.
A similar ordinance existed in Miami, where a tent city of sex offenders and predators under the Julia Tuttle Causeway helped bring some of the unintended consequences of the ordinance to light.
Commissioners turned their concern to Polk after The Ledger and other media outlets reported the December arrests of a group of homeless predators in Auburndale.
Miami-Dade's new law overwrites the other ordinances within the county. It maintains the 2,500-foot restriction from schools, but otherwise returns to state law, which forbids offenders from living within 1,000 feet of other places where children gather. The law also institutes "child-safety zones," forbidding offenders from loitering within 300 feet of places where children congregate.
Wilkinson said Miami-Dade's new law seems "tougher" and "smarter."
"The current law promises more than it delivers," he said. "Though you cannot sleep within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop, during the daytime hours you can spend all day at one. It's kind of a false hope."
Wilkinson also repeated the concern that the ordinance has increased the number of homeless predators.
"I'm not saying I'm going to back it ... (but) if a sexual predator is released, we've got to handle them in a realistic way, rather than putting them on the streets where they could be more of a danger to our children."
Sunday, January 24, 2010
By Mark Boxley
A Concord man told Alcoa police officers Friday that he was waiting for a light to change at an intersection on Hall Road when a woman in a Jeep in front of him got out, jumped on his hood and started kicking and punching his windshield.
The man, _____, 37, Concord, said he had just gotten off of work and was driving north on Hall Road when he stopped behind a woman in a green Jeep Wrangler at a traffic light.
"(_____) stated that for no apparent reason, the driver of the Jeep, a white female, exited her vehicle and ran toward him," an Alcoa police report said. "She jumped on the hood of his vehicle while he was still stopped at the red light and began kicking and punching the windshield of his vehicle while screaming at him."
The woman -- identified by police as Mary L. Biggerstaff, 58, La Barge, Wyo. -- allegedly accused _____ of following her and "repeatedly said she knew he was a 'sex offender.'" _____ is not a registered sex offender, the report said.
After allegedly punching and kicking the windshield repeatedly, Biggerstaff then got back into her vehicle and drove away. _____ and a witness followed her vehicle until police arrived at the scene.
Biggerstaff was arrested and charged with vandalism of more than $500 -- damage done to _____'s vehicle was estimated at $650.
A Maryville police officer at the scene took the leash of a small dog that Biggerstaff had with her while the woman was taken to the Blount County Jail. According to the Alcoa report, an unleashed dog from across the street then ran up and attacked the woman's dog. The officer deployed his Taser on the second dog, which caused it to release the woman's dog and run back across the street.
Neither dog was seriously injured in the incident. An Alcoa Police Department animal control officer took possession of the woman's dog.
She was being held in lieu of a $1,000 bond pending a 9 a.m. Jan. 28 hearing in Blount County General Sessions Court.
By Chris Megerian
One week before _____’s release from the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, a specialized prison for sex offenders, he was summoned to an examination room.
Once there, _____ later told investigators, a sergeant instructed him to sit in an electronic chair used to scan inmates for contraband and pretend to be electrocuted.
_____ sat in the chair yelling and shaking, "pretending that electricity was coming from the chair," he said. Then he placed "cream soup" in his mouth and allowed it to seep out "for added effect."
The entire ruse was allegedly conducted to frighten a second inmate, _____, a sex offender with a history of mental health problems whom officers planned to question. In a separate interview, Grant told investigators he saw an inmate with "foam coming from his mouth" and then became "upset, nervous and shaking" when officers sat him in the chair while interrogating him.
The officers involved denied the allegations, saying none of _____’s account was true. They told investigators they were only using the chair to search _____ for contraband before questioning him. Instead of threatening to electrocute _____, they said, the officers were trying to reassure him by unplugging the chair, used to detect metal in objects like weapons or cell phones, because _____’s handcuffs set off an alarm, scaring him.
The conflicting accounts of the Oct. 3 incident were contained in a confidential internal affairs report obtained by The Star-Ledger.
The investigation, which concluded this month, did not substantiate the electrocution threat or the preceding ruse, according to the report. Without a video camera in the examination room, the case boiled down to the officers’ word against the inmates’.
Earlier this month, the department moved to fire the three veteran officers involved but instead struck a deal allowing them to keep their jobs and receive transfers to other facilities, according to officials and documents.
Each pleaded guilty to multiple infractions including conduct unbecoming and violation of safety regulations, according to the settlement agreements. Sergeants Mark Percoco and Steven Russo, also charged with neglect of duty, are serving 105-day suspensions without pay, while officer Edward Aponte will be off the job for 14 days.
Officials, who requested anonymity to discuss an internal investigation, said there wasn’t enough evidence to support firing the officers if the case reached an administrative hearing.
"The investigation didn’t produce the results that we thought," one official said. "We knew we weren’t going to be able to sustain the removal."
- How would you prove it, when cameras are missing and it's the police against the inmates word? Police know this, and it's how they continue to get a way with crap like this, which DOES occur.
In addition, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue criminal charges.
The internal documents obtained by this newspaper provide a rare glimpse at an internal investigation and the disciplinary process within the state’s prison system. Such proceedings are kept confidential: public records show when disciplinary action is taken but reveal little about the employees’ infractions or how the punishment was decided.
The Oct. 3 incident also raises questions about how inmate complaints are handled in state prisons. Officers told investigators they were questioning _____ because he was making threats against an officer, but the internal report concluded the "threats" were only the filing of "remedy forms," which give inmates a way to express concerns. And, when pressed, no one could locate the "threatening" complaints _____ was accused of writing.
- Of course they couldn't find them!
Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union
(Contact), expressed concern that inmates were being discouraged from complaining.
"Respect for internal affairs and prisoners’ rights to address grievances is essential to the integrity of prisons and other such institutions," she said. "The only way to create a silver lining to this tragic and appalling incident is to use it as a springboard for establishing grievance and oversight systems and training programs to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again."
During the four-month probe documented in the internal report, investigators videotaped interviews with inmates _____ and _____, the three officers under investigation, and several other employees in the prison.
The facility, built in 1976, provides treatment to about 650 sex offenders, including those with mental illnesses. Corrections spokesman Matt Schuman declined to comment on this case, and _____’s lawyer did not return messages left at his office. _____, now under parole supervision, referred questions to his lawyer, who did not return calls for comment.
Robert Fagella, a Newark lawyer representing Aponte, said his client is a model employee whose lighter suspension shows he didn’t do anything seriously wrong.
"He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Fagella said. "There wasn’t very much there to charge him with. I think it was a face-saving device."
The Oct. 3 incident was brought to the attention of investigators by a third inmate at the prison, the report said. The inmate told investigators _____ was being mocked by staff members who were "making a sizzling sound" like they were "frying meat." The inmate said _____ was telling other inmates he was strapped to a chair and threatened with electrocution.
The investigation found that Aponte and Russo had gone to the prison’s recreation yard to fetch _____, then brought him handcuffed to the examination room for a strip search. Percoco told investigators he brought _____ to the room to reorganize equipment, then sent him out when _____ arrived. Russo said they asked _____ to sit on the electronic chair to search him for metal. According to Russo, _____ has a habit of using razor blades to remove tobacco from cigarette butts in the prison yard.
Afterward, Russo told investigators, they escorted _____ from the room, providing him juice at a nearby office before releasing him.
According to the Corrections website, _____ is now serving his five-year term at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton.