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Hell to Pay

New law lets police divulge information about sex offenders, but is it flawed?

By Paula Harris

FURIOUS AND FRIGHTENED Santa Rosa neighbors got their wish. Convicted child molester Russell Charles Markvardsen, target of protests after Sonoma County sheriff's officials released his name, address, photograph, and criminal history on a landmark flier, is now behind bars in San Quentin.

His is the first arrest since the July 1 public release of the so-called Megan's Law CD-ROM computer system, which lists the criminal records of 64,000 sex offenders statewide. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department became the first in the state to distribute "community alert" fliers about four high-risk registered sex offenders living in the county.

This move, later mirrored in several communities, and the CD-ROM--which local and state officials now acknowledge is riddled with errors--is drawing criticism from civil libertarians who see Megan's Law as a flawed and potentially dangerous crime-fighting tool. "The law is irrational," says Kelli Evans, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "On the one hand, we want offenders to reform, but on the other, we make it impossible for them to live in a community and hold down a job.

"So people are going underground and moving from town to town, which also disrupts any treatment plan they may be undergoing."

Last Wednesday morning, just hours before his arrest, Russell Markvardsen sat in his heavily curtained Beachwood Drive living room in the Roseland section of Santa Rosa, a seascape painting over the sofa and a pile of National Geographics under the coffee table. He spoke about the impact of the public disclosure. He denied having had contact with neighbors or making threatening phone calls as alleged by one neighbor.

He vowed to do nothing that could land him back in jail. "I'm still under parole; I'm not going to jeopardize that," said the tense-faced 46-year-old, sitting rigidly in a white collarless shirt and blue jeans. He added that if he were sent back to prison, it would be his "death sentence," because the disclosure of his sexual offenses against minors would place him in danger from other inmates.

Four hours after the interview, state parole agents, acting on a neighbor's tip, abruptly arrested and jailed Markvardsen. According to deputy regional administrator Fran Berkowitz, Markvardsen had violated the terms of his parole by talking to neighborhood teens without officer permission.

According to the sheriff's flier, Markvardsen had spent 12 years in prison for "sodomy with a person under 14 years old with force" in 1981, and "lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 years old" in 1991. Markvardsen claims the flier is inaccurate and that both counts involved consensual sex. But Acting Sheriff Jim Piccinini says the information, from the state Department of Justice, is presumed correct. A spokesman for state Attorney General Dan Lungren says that state officials stand by the discs, but that up to 75 percent of the addresses are wrong.

Released in 1994, Markvardsen registered with state officials as a sex offender and moved into the Roseland district three months ago. Until July 1, information about his crimes remained hidden from the general public. He'd planned to move to Alaska with his roommate when his parole cleared in 10 months.

Everything changed June 30, when sheriff's deputies alerted neighbors. Markvardsen discovered one of the fliers, containing his own image, inside his mailbox. "Think of the worst thing that ever happened in your life and multiply that by a thousand," he said of his response. "I knew then that everything I'd planned to do with my life was not going to happen."

Two days after some 100 neighbors protested outside his home, demanding that he move elsewhere, Markvardsen lost his job with a tow-truck company. "[My employers] told me they're afraid they could lose contracts," he explained.

Without work, Markvardsen sat home all day while worried neighbors kept children indoors. Markvardsen said the finger-pointing made it virtually impossible to leave the house.

"Sonoma County sheriffs knew exactly the type of reaction they'd get. They wanted this reaction," he complained. "They're trying to make me an example, not just for our area, but for the whole state. I've followed the law, registered, had my picture taken, and done what I'm supposed to do. I've served my time. This is nothing more than the witches of Salem."

Some legal experts and civil libertarians fear that Megan's Law, which tests new legal waters by leaving enforcement mainly to the community--Markvardsen's neighbors were told deputies would not increase patrols in their neighborhood--may incite hate crimes and vigilantism.

"People are becoming the subjects of increased community pressure and harassment. This case illustrates not only the harm to the offender, who has served his sentence and is trying to get his life back together, but also illustrates problems for the community," explains Katherine Sher, legislative advocate with the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

"It sounds like the community information created a hysterical atmosphere," agrees ACLU's Evans, adding that in other communities sex offenders have become the target of vigilantes as a direct result of Megan's Law.

For instance, two weeks ago, a van owned by a convicted child molester near Los Angeles was firebombed after the CD-ROM became available. In New Jersey, enraged neighbors beat an innocent man in his home because they had mistakenly identified him as a child molester. In Santa Cruz County, Vernon Robert Elliot, 56, was hounded from his home after sheriffs released his details. And in San Francisco this week, a man found faked Megan's Law­style posters, accusing him of child molestation, plastered around his neighborhood.

Evans says the ACLU's harassment hot-line has received reports of death threats, arson, and losses of jobs and housing because of the law.

Piccinini defends his decision to distribute the fliers and plans to continue. "It's our obligation and responsibility to notify parents in the area. I've not had one complaint. Quite the contrary, people are saying 'thank you,'" he says.

He's also pleased that San Francisco police officials may take an even more aggressive stance on Megan's Law, using cable TV and newspapers, as well as fliers to alert residents.

Meanwhile, Piccinini blames the news media for adding "a lot of fuel to the fire" during the Markvardsen situation. "It didn't get volatile until the press got involved and gave it more attention than it would have gotten," he says. However, sheriffs actively sought media coverage when they held a press conference and demonstration of the computer disc on June 30.

Margie Cone who organized the protest outside Markvardsen's duplex, helped gather 135 petition signatures calling for his eviction, and had planned a second protest for alarmed and angry neighbors.

"It's pretty scary. If [Markvardsen] says he's no longer a threat to society, why is he labeled high risk?" asked neighbor Laurie Christani, a single mom with sons ages 14 and 16. "There's too many kids in this neighborhood who feel threatened. Maybe if we get him mad enough he'll leave," she added.

Hours later, neighbors got their wish. On Friday, he was moved to San Quentin pending a hearing within 45 days. "If they find a preponderance of evidence, he may go back to jail for up to one year," says Berkowitz.

"News [of the arrest] spread quickly," says a relieved Cone. "A couple of hours later the kids came out."

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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