Friday, December 4, 2009
By Alan Prendergast
Last week, we reported on the bludgeoning death of inmate _____, a convicted child molester, at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility outside of Canon City.
A fifty-year-old habitual offender serving time for kidnapping and sexual assault on a child, _____ was struck repeatedly in the head with a metal bar; his alleged assailant, Kevin Lust, is serving a life sentence for the murders of his wife and ex-fiancee.
Now, inmate sources have come forward with more details that raise questions about general security issues at Territorial and whether _____ was being set up for attack. If their reports are correct, _____ begged corrections officers to protect him from Lust, given a history of altercations between the two, but was ignored.
"Apparently, these guys got into a fight some 7-8 months ago in the kitchen," one inmate writes. "They were separated and sent to different units."
According to some accounts, Lust vowed to kill _____ the next time he saw him. That kind of information typically goes into an offender's file, along with orders to keep the individuals involved housed in separate areas. Inmates claim _____ was inexplicably moved into Lust's pod the same day he was killed, when there were other empty cells that could have been used.
But Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti disputes this version. _____ and Lust had been in the same pod for months, she says, before the attack took place.
According to the inmates, _____ reportedly went to a sergeant on November 18 and asked to be moved to another pod. He was told he'd have to talk to another officer the next day. He didn't live that long.
Although the coroner described the instrument that was used to kill _____ as a dumbbell, inmates say that it was "a homemade bar that had a string attached to it so inmate recreation workers could do exercises for their forearms." In other words, it wasn't an authorized piece of equipment "and did not have to be accounted for."
Inmates say violence has increased at Territorial since the Department of Corrections has started housing more high-security inmates in what is supposed to be a medium-security facility. (The latest population report shows 257 "close" inmates at Territorial, or roughly 28 percent of the total.) They complain that the state is double-bunking in small cells, in violation of a 1980 court order, and that up to 96 inmates share three toilets, two urinals and five showers, in violation of health standards. Sanguinetti says the facility recently passed an American Correctional Association accreditation inspection and meets required standards.
By Greg Allen
Audio for this story from All Things Considered will be available at approx. 7:00 p.m. ET
More than 20 states, including Florida, limit where convicted sex offenders can live — keeping them away from schools, parks and other places where children congregate.
In Miami, dozens of homeless sex offenders live under a bridge because there are few, if any, options nearby. But 90 miles away, there's a community dedicated to housing sex offenders.
Where Electronic Monitors Fill The Pews
On a recent Sunday morning, a few dozen men and just a few women gather at a little country church near Pahokee, Fla. They sing, pray and stand up to testify about the importance of God in their lives.
About the only sign that there's something unusual about this church comes when it's time for communion. Many of the men making their way to the altar are wearing ankle bracelets and electronic monitors on their belts.
This is the church at Miracle Park, a community mostly made up of sex offenders. Dick Witherow is their pastor.
Standing at the altar, he challenges the congregation. "How many of you were looking for God when you got saved?" He laughs, "You didn't choose God. He chose us."
Witherow is a tall, spare man, 76 years old, a former private detective.
Shortly after he entered the ministry some 30 years ago, he began working in prisons, holding prayer services and doing addiction counseling.
Then, about a decade ago, he began focusing on sex offenders. After some horrific sex crimes involving children, Florida became one of the first states to pass laws restricting where sex offenders could live after they're released from prison — effectively banning them from some communities.
Ministering To 'Modern-Day Lepers'
Witherow began looking at places where he could open a residential program for sex offenders, which didn't endear him to nearby communities. "I tell people I'm the most popular man in town," he says. "And of course, I'm saying that facetiously."
Witherow believes people can change. At Miracle Park, those on probation attend weekly court-ordered sex therapy sessions. He also offers anger-management classes and sessions on relationships, inner healing and life skills.
Witherow has authored a book about sex offenders called The Modern Day Leper . He says he could have worn the same label as the men at Miracle Park. He was 18 years old when he met his first wife. She was just 14, and before long she was pregnant. A judge allowed them to get married but told Witherow he could have been charged with statutory rape.
"If that would have happened in today's society, I would have been charged with sexual battery on a minor, been given anywhere from 10 to 25 years in prison, plus extended probation time after that, and then been labeled a sex offender," he says.
Witherow knows that there are those who argue that's what should have happened.
'The Cry Was So Loud ... All Over Town'
Witherow once had a ranch for sex offenders in Okeechobee County. But zoning law changes forced that facility to close. His search for another spot brought him here, to a small community he renamed Miracle Park. It's a collection of duplexes about 3 miles east of the town of Pahokee, in rural Palm Beach County.
It's surrounded on every side by sugar cane fields. About 40 of those living there now are sex offenders.
"It's open to everybody," Witherow says. "However, the only ones that are really looking to be out here in the boondocks and pay $100 a week to live with somebody else, basically, are those who don't have anyplace else to go, which are the sex offenders."
Witherow didn't have the $5.5 million the owner wanted for the property. So instead of buying it, he became the property manager. One of his first acts was to let families with children know that a community of sex offenders was moving in, and that they might want to move out.
Most of the families left. Several later sued, saying they were forced from their homes unfairly.
Henry Crawford, the vice mayor of Pahokee, says, "The cry was so loud, man, you could hear it all over town."
On the western edge of Palm Beach County, Pahokee is a poor and mostly black community in one of the nation's wealthiest counties.
Crawford says that because Miracle Park is located outside of the city limits, there wasn't much local officials could do about it. He believes the sex offenders deserve a place to live. He just wishes it wasn't here.
"If this was in other parts of Palm Beach, I don't think this would occur," he says. "But I think the good reverend knew that it wouldn't be much pressure from rural Palm Beach County … not to do this. So the fight was easier here than it would be anywhere else."
Not all the people who had been living in Miracle Park moved out. Stroll through the grounds and you'll run into elderly residents who have lived there for years. Many are former sugar company workers or their relatives.
Barbara Haywood lives there with her daughter and 9-month-old grandson. When she first heard that sex offenders were moving in, she says, she was scared. But not anymore. In her Bahamian accent, she says, "I'm [not] scared any of them because everyone pass, they give me a respect, you know?"
'God Has Forgiven Me Now'
Across the nation, communities are debating where sex offenders can live after they're released from prison. That includes Miami-Dade County, where a colony of sex offenders live under a bridge on the causeway leading to Miami Beach.
Witherow believes shared living arrangements like Miracle Park offer a solution. He says he screens the sex offenders who want to live here. Repeated offenses, burglaries and violent crimes are all red flags. And he says that, as a general rule, he won't accept pedophiles.
But these are still sex offenders, people who in many cases have done terrible things.
The operations manager at Miracle Park is Pat Powers, an efficient, compact man in his 60s. Twenty years ago, he was a racquetball coach who pleaded no contest to molesting 11 of his teen and pre-teen students.
"I was guilty as could be," he says. "Even to this day, there are times where I just feel like, you know, I let people down. But God has forgiven me now, and so now my life is changing."
Shared Space, Self-Policing?
Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, says it's possible that clustering so many sex offenders in one place could increase the risk for nearby communities, like Pahokee. But, she says, research shows that there are also benefits to placing sex offenders in shared living situations like Miracle Park.
She says the sex offenders often begin to police themselves. "If somebody is doing something that's risky," she says, "the others will call him out on that or report that to authorities because, in their mind, if one person goes on and re-offends, that's going to be problematic for everyone else that's living there."
It's been nearly a year since Witherow opened his community of sex offenders at Miracle Park, and financially, things aren't going well. He has used up $300,000 in savings and is running a deficit, in part because many of the sex offenders have been unable to find work and pay their rent.
Ever a man of faith, he says "God will provide."
But in the meantime, he is talking to corrections officials about a whole new group of sex offenders who need housing: senior citizens who have served their sentences and have Social Security but need just one more thing — a place on the outside where they will be allowed to live.
By Tom Halden
ST. PAUL - Sexual assault is a major problem in Minnesota and across the country, but instead of throwing up their hands, people are coming together Friday in St. Paul to help stop it.
The Minnesota Summit to Prevent Sexual Violence is the first of its kind in the nation, gathering some of the top minds and agencies at the TIES building.
The summit is all part of the Minnesota Department of Health's sexual violence prevention plan and its director is a well-known child safety advocate -- Patty Wetterling.
Wetterling says the state can no longer treat, educate or prosecute its way out of the problem, saying there has to be a way to stop the violence before it starts. That's why 200 of the top minds in the field are sitting down and putting their experience into action.
The sexual violence statistics in Minnesota are staggering, according to the health department. One in four females and one in seven males will likely be a victim of attempted or completed sexual assault by the time they turn 18. Add in the number of all ages assaulted and it reaches more than 61,000 in Minnesota in a single year.
The estimated cost of sexual violence in Minnesota is $8 billion each year.
The summit is planned as a day of collaborative action planning, through roundtable discussions aided by audience-response technology. The event is modeled after summits held by the Mayo Clinic.
Much of what is discussed in St. Paul on Friday will go on to the national summit of sexual violence next summer in Washington, D.C. Minnesota is well-known for victim services and the people here want to try to change that to being well-known for preventing assaults in the first place.
The summit is sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Minnesota Department of Health, the state departments of corrections, education, human services and public Safety, and the Mayo Clinic's Child and Family Advocacy Program.
By Mark Coddington
ORD -- A former law enforcement officer in several area communities was convicted last week of abusing a vulnerable adult.
LeRoy J. Svoboda, 67, of Silver Creek pleaded no contest to the charge last Wednesday in Valley County District Court.
He was charged in March with first-degree sexual assault after being accused of having sex in June 2008 with a 27-year-old mentally handicapped woman.
That charge was reduced last week to two counts of abuse of a vulnerable adult, according to the district court.
Svoboda is a former sheriff's deputy in Valley, Sherman and Greeley counties and a former police officer in Ord and Shelton.
He was most recently a part-time deputy for the Greeley County Sheriff's Department until February.
Svoboda's accuser gave birth to a baby in January, and DNA samples taken from the baby and Svoboda were a match, according to an affidavit.
Abuse of a vulnerable adult is a Class 3A felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. First-degree sexual assault is a Class 2 felony, punishable by up to 50 years in prison.
Conviction of sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult -- a subcategory of the charge to which Svoboda pleaded no contest -- requires the defendant to register as a sex offender.
Svoboda's sentencing is set for Feb. 3.
By Abby Jordan
The state's Sex Offender Registry Board says it is working toward a July 2010 deadline for implementing federal guidelines that would strengthen registration requirements nationwide.
However, questions remain on whether Massachusetts can or should comply with the mandate, though noncompliance could mean a loss of around $1 million in federal crime prevention funding.
- And compliance will cost more than that!
Currently, Ohio is the only state that has complied with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.
The act creates a national registry and requires states and jurisdictions to meet a minimum set of standards in registering sex offenders and making the information publicly available.
The stricter requirements could prevent more sexual crimes from occurring, said the founder of a sexual assault awareness and advocacy group in Chelmsford.
- So are you saying that most sex crimes are committed by repeat offenders? That is backwards, most sex crimes being committed today, are from those who are not currently registered sex offenders. Look it up for yourself!
"There are so many ways in Massachusetts that sex offenders slip though the cracks," said Laurie Myer, founder of Community Voices. "If we comply, it would help us as a state keep track of (sex offenders)."
But state officials this week declined to say what Massachusetts has done, or is doing, to implement SORNA.
"The Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board is working toward substantial compliance," said spokesman Charles McDonald.
- Looks like they haven't done any studies on what it will actually cost to comply. If they would, they'd see it will cost more than the $1 million they would lose.
Implementation falls to that board, under the state's Executive Office of Public Safety. The Attorney General's Office referred questions to that office as well.
SORNA's guidelines call for state registries to collect more extensive registration information, require one to four in-person offender appearances annually for verification, expands a tiered offender classification system and stipulates what offenses require registration and for how long.
It also broadens the availability of sex offender information made public on registry Web sites and otherwise, and creates criminal penalties against offenders who fail to register.
In Massachusetts, sex offenders who must register are classified as Level 1, 2 or 3, based on the risk of re-offending, and in-person appearances at police departments are required annually for Level 2 and 3 sex offenders.
- And by implementing the AWA, they then put people into Tier 1, 2 or 3 based on the crime, not the risk of re-offending.
Information is made public online for Level 3 sex offenders only, is available by request at police departments for Level 2 offenders and is not made public for Level 1 offenders.
July 2009 was the original Justice Department deadline for SORNA implementation, however all states were granted an extension to July 27, 2010.
States may also apply for a one-year extension on top of that, by providing information on their implementation efforts, and why the extension is needed.
States that fail to implement SORNA could lose 10 percent of their justice assistance grant funding, which totaled $9.9 million for fiscal year 2009 in Massachusetts.
- And that, the last time I checked, is bribery!
There is a risk of losing around $1 million yearly for noncompliance, based on the 2009 grant figure, but William Leahy, chief counsel for the state's Committee for Public Counsel Services, said compliance has its costs as well.
Leahy said the state would have to hire more staff and improve technology, among other measures, to comply with SORNA.
- So is this their plan to "stimulate" the economy, by exploiting people and the public's fear, to make more jobs?
In letters sent to Gov. Deval Patrick (Contact) and Attorney General Martha Coakley (Contact) in February 2008, Leahy says the state's existing sex offender registration statute already complies with many elements required by SORNA.
Most important, the state cannot comply with SORNA's guidelines for sex offender classification and verification and community notification because it would violate the state constitution, he said.
"The existing sex offender registration and notification act in Massachusetts is consistent with the purpose of SORNA and should constitute substantial compliance with the federal law," Leahy writes.
Yesterday, Leahy said a large majority of states have objections to implementing the standards, while here in Massachusetts state laws are an obstacle.
"There's a clash between the federal regulations and state law," he said.