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Megan's Legacy

[whitespace] school School Zone: Parents in the Fremont area were shocked last month when local police and the Fremont Unified School District sent out 35,000 maps sprinkled with dots indicating the approximate residences of registered sex offenders.

Christopher Gardner



Megan's Law was supposed to make parents and children feel safer, but in one Fremont neighborhood, it seems to have just made everyone more afraid

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

IN THE FIRST FEW WEEKS after the opening of the school year this September, parents of children in the Fremont Unified School District received several jolts of chilling news. First, kids reported at least five separate incidents of "suspicious contact" where strangers had approached them as they walked to or from school. On one day alone, two such incidents were reported within five minutes of each other, one mile apart.

Becky Galloway, the Parent Teacher Student Association president at Horner Junior High School and the mother of a child at Hirsch Elementary,

where one of the incidents took place, calls the suspicious contact reports "very troublesome, very unusual," adding, "I talked to a police officer at the school and he told me that even after all of the publicity dies down, we need to be very aware."

But the troubling news was not over for Fremont area parents.

Late in October, in a joint project with the Fremont Unified School District, the Fremont Police Department sent out 35,000 maps to parents, generously sprinkled with dots indicating the approximate residences of registered sex offenders.

To many parents, the mailed-out sex offender maps were shocking. Two schools, Hirsch Elementary and Horner Junior High, are virtually surrounded by 30 registered sex offenders. The maps give the appearance that every day on their way to school, Hirsch and Horner students must dodge through a Pac-Man-like maze of perverts, gropers, kidnappers, molesters and rapists. Many other schools fare little better. Twelve more Fremont schools have in excess of 20 registered sex offenders living within a one-mile radius. Another 15 schools have more than 10 each.

The map mailings, police say, had nothing to do with this year's spate of suspicious-contact reports, but are simply a part of the department's annual sex offender notification program under California's "Megan's Law."

Named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl named Megan Kanka, who in 1994 was raped and murdered, Megan's Law in California requires convicted sex offenders to register with police and allows citizens to view a CD-ROM at police stations that shows photos of the registrants and a more detailed account of their crimes. The law also allows police to notify the public when particularly high-risk offenders move into a community, such as the recent high-profile incident where police informed East Palo Alto residents that convicted "doggie door" rapist Jack Martin Manes had been paroled to a halfway house in one of their neighborhoods. Community protests quickly forced the California Department of Corrections to move Manes to San Jose.

The Fremont school area's map mailing caused a huge leap in requests to view the sex offender CD-ROM at Fremont police headquarters. Some residents reported having to wait in line for up to an hour to access the police computer, and Fremont police officials say that some 275 residents viewed the CD-ROM in the first two weeks after the map release. In the first six months the CD-ROM was available last year, they say, fewer than 15 residents per month viewed it.

PAMELA WARMACK, chairwoman of the Horner Junior High School Site Council and the parent of four children at Hirsch and Horner, has a special interest in the maps. One of the sex-offender dots appears on her own street, and without an exact address, she has unsuccessfully been trying to figure out which of her neighbors it refers to. She says that she supports the map mailings and the Megan's Law CD-ROM "in the aspect of protecting our children. But unless you know all of the circumstances, you can really jump to conclusions." A letter accompanying the sex-offender maps tells parents they can alter their children's route to school, or ensure that they have adult supervision when they are in that area. "But these [sex offenders] don't always stay home," she points out. "Some make friends with the family, or they make friends with kids. They offer to be your babysitter. Knowing that a sex offender lives somewhere on a street doesn't necessarily help."

Horner PTSA president Becky Galloway had similar feelings of discomfort.

"I'm glad the maps are out there," Galloway says. But Galloway was concerned that neither the maps nor the CD-ROM gave enough specific information about the offenders themselves. "Some of the people listed might not necessarily be a danger to children," she says. "I mean, all of the conduct listed is inappropriate, but not necessarily a danger [to children]."

Many of the convicted offenders listed on Fremont's CD-ROM clearly represent a potential danger to children, but other cases are not so clear-cut.

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Sex crimes come in all shapes and sizes, but Megan's Law postings don't show it.

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TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, the case of Larry Jordan, who appears on the Fremont CD-ROM in the 94538 ZIP code. In 1976, Jordan was riding near midnight in a very rough part of Oakland when he spotted an intoxicated young woman standing on a street corner near several bars, in a location frequented by prostitutes. Jordan said that the young woman got in his car voluntarily, and they drove to an isolated street and had consensual sex. The young woman testified in court that Jordan threatened to shoot her if she did not get in the car (she says he never produced a gun), and that Jordan then raped her. The young woman was a 15-year-old high school student, waiting for a bus after leaving a party where she had ditched her boyfriend. Jordan was found guilty of rape in 1978. Is Larry Jordan a sexual threat to schoolchildren in Fremont? On Fremont's sex-offender maps and CD-ROM, he appears no different than any other sex offender, including Frank Joe Mitchell.

Fifty-seven-year-old Frank Joe Mitchell is registered in the same ZIP code as Hirsch and Horner schools. In 1972 he was convicted of molesting an 8-year-old boy, the son of friends in whose home Mitchell was living. Following Mitchell's arrest in that case, an Alameda County deputy district attorney reported to the court that Mitchell "has a deeply ingrained aberration of 'pedophilia' and that the two episodes with [the 8-year-old] are not isolated instances." Four years later, Mitchell was convicted of molesting his 10-year-old stepdaughter and was committed to Atascadero State Hospital.

In a 1980 report requesting that Mitchell remain at Atascadero, a hospital official said that "Mr. Mitchell has gained little from his hospitalization. ... [W]ithout supervision he is likely to become sexually involved with children, and the staff is of the opinion that he presents substantial danger of bodily harm to others." Eventually, he was released and moved to Fremont.

But parents looking at a map, with dots and no addresses and no information about specific crimes, would never know the details of either case.

FREMONT ATTORNEY Mark Cohen believes that although Megan's Law is "an attempt to protect the public, which is a legitimate goal," the release of the maps is "clearly a political move, a typical tactic of right-wing extremists, which may create hysteria over nothing."

Cohen recently lost a civil suit in Alameda County Superior Court attempting to block a similar map distribution system in Union City.

"What's inherent in [Megan's Law] is the embodiment of hysteria," Cohen says. "They are acting on the politics of fear." Cohen says that the Fremont police could generate just as much attention by sending out notices to parents saying that large numbers of sex offenders are living in their areas, and inviting them to come in and view the CD-ROMs. But Cohen says that because it deals with the sensitive issue of child molestation, the map circulation is going to be politically popular. "No politician is going to say the map is wrong."

Despite the discomfort of some parents and Cohen's concerns, Fremont police and school officials are universally upbeat about the map-mailing program.

"We want to give parents the best information we can on sex offenders, and the maps give them a general idea where these people live," says Fremont school board member Jeff Davis, adding that letters coming in from parents were "overwhelmingly supportive."

Carol Ann Koch-Weser, president of the Thornton Junior High PTSA, says that several parents told her they were grateful that the maps arrived just prior to Halloween. "It helped them plan their trick-or-treat routes," she said.

Similar support was voiced by police Captain Ron Hunt, who heads up Fremont's Megan's Law project. "The maps have a spatial reference to where potentially dangerous situations exist," he says. "We tell kids, 'Don't go near that pond because you might drown.' Or 'Don't go on the railroad track because a train might hit you.' The maps tell kids 'Don't go to the end of that street.' "

But Koch-Weser, who supports the map mailings, admits that there are aspects that render them less effective. "Even if you can identify the address, that doesn't mean that the danger of assault is where the person lives," she says. "After all, they can just drive down the street somewhere else."

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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