Is it fair that California plans to out rapists and child molesters by posting their names and photos online, along with their addresses? That depends on whether you ask a child molester or the victim of one.
You may not realize how easy it is to find, in the crevices of downtown Sacramento, rapists and child molesters whom law enforcement considers at high risk for re-offense. With information made public under Megan’s Law, which warns communities about the presence of convicted sexual offenders, anyone can find the names and pictures of Sacramento’s most dangerous offenders online. Starting this past summer, they were profiled for the first time on the Sacramento Police Department’s Web site, at www.sacpd.org.
The online profiles are the first trickle in a coming flood of Internet information about California sex offenders, intensifying the debate about whether such information protects the community from new offenses, as advocates believe, or unfairly punishes sexual offenders who’ve already done their time in prison, as some researchers assert. We sought out a few of the newly revealed sex offenders to see for ourselves.
Currently, the 19 sex offenders profiled online by the police are identified not only by name, face and sex crimes, but also by the blocks on which they live—the 1100 block of Seventh Street, for example.
On that particular block, the century-old Marshall Hotel offers some of the few single-occupancy rooms left in Sacramento. It’s the only obvious residence on a dingy, urban block that’s reminiscent of downtown Sacramento’s low-rent days. Banked by the K Street Mall on one side and the Greyhound bus station on another, the block is full of people standing blank-eyed against walls or talking with their neighbors about being hassled by police.
Inside the Marshall, the mostly male residents are talkative, and it’s easy enough to confirm that Delmar Burrows, identified as a convicted child molester, lives on the third floor.
Accessible by an old lift, Burrows’ room sits at the end of a dreary hallway and is the only one with the door wide open. Inside is a cheery scene of multifaceted chaos. Burrows’ bed and floor are littered with clothes and blankets and a bright, loud mess that might signify some teenager’s preference for dropping things randomly and letting them lie. But Burrows, in a T-shirt and sweats, is no longer a teenager, though he still sits staring at cartoons on a weekday afternoon. With the unlined face of a boy, and a thick-tongued voice, Burrows is a bear of a man—one who likes to make children and their parents laugh with his practiced imitations of Donald Duck.
Online, Burrows is identified by his birthday (he’s 41), his weight (305 pounds) and his crimes: “oral copulation, annoy or molest child under 18, sexual battery.” Two photos show what he looks like with hair and with a shaved head. He is considered by law enforcement to be one of Sacramento’s 19 most high-risk sex offenders, which is ironic, considering he was voluntarily castrated in 1997.
Tucked away in a booth at Carl’s Jr. in Downtown Plaza, Burrows explained that as a side effect of the surgery, he has no physical desire for children anymore. However, he says he still crosses the street rather than approach “red flags” like the ice-skating rink constructed on K Street every winter, and security guards keep an eye on him when he walks through the mall. Although Burrows says he still feels warmly toward children, even parental, he says he never talks to them unless they’re with their parents. In the mall, he might ask if he can give a child a piece of candy, or tell children to be good because Santa is watching. Friendly by nature, he gets smiles out of parents as well as kids.
Among sex offenders, Burrows isn’t exactly typical. In fact, he’s been something of a celebrity since his unusual decision to, as he says, “snip, snip.” Although chemical castration through the use of testosterone-depleting drugs like Depo-Provera is an accepted strategy for controlling sexual urges, Burrows requested—and, after a psychological evaluation, was granted—a surgical castration. He got the idea from watching piglets castrated at the boys ranch where he grew up. To hear him describe it, Burrows’ choice was one of self-preservation.
“I was looking at a third strike, looking at life,” he said. “Bye, life!” But he added that there was another reason: “I got tired of hurting children.” Asked how many he hurt, Burrows shuddered. “Too many,” he said with his eyes closed, refusing to elaborate.
Burrows last served seven years for molesting two Roseville boys in 1990. After his release, he moved into a residential facility in Auburn, also voluntarily. Five years ago, he arrived at the Marshall Hotel.
Detective Terry Chew of the Sacramento Police Department has known Burrows for four years and claims that, like other high-risk offenders, Burrows is visited on a regular basis and is under surveillance occasionally. “He has been good,” said Chew.
“Since I got myself snipped, I’ve been living a nice life,” said Burrows, with his offbeat grin.
In spite of his optimism, Burrows’ life is complicated by his criminal past, and more so because Megan’s Law allows law enforcement to use public-notification tools like the online profile and the distribution of fliers to show his picture and warn his neighbors that he’s a convicted child molester.
Burrows claims to have filled out hundreds of job applications admitting that he’s been convicted of a felony and “will explain during interview,” but he never hears from prospective employers. Now, he picks up odd jobs, sometimes washing linens for the hotel, sometimes running rides at a fair (although this year, someone found out about his status as an offender, and he wasn’t hired). Mainly, he lives off Social Security.
Because children aren’t allowed at the Marshall, Burrows doesn’t attract a lot of attention from concerned parents. He’s tried living in different neighborhoods, he said, but he always ends up back at the Marshall. In Oak Park, he claimed, law-enforcement fliers alerted his neighbors to his status as a child molester. After eight months of bullying from his next-door neighbor, Burrows went back downtown, he said. Residents at the Marshall know about Burrows’ criminal history, too, because that area was fliered as well.
In Sacramento, the most serious sex offenders seem confined to seedier parts of town. Of the 19 listed online, three live on a gritty block of 12th Street. Another sex offender recently left Sacramento after moving out of a halfway house. Yet another moved into a seniors-only apartment after being kicked out of an apartment complex allowing children.
In his affable way, Burrows said he understands that people are trying to protect themselves and protect children. “But look at it our way,” he said. “Walk in our shoes. … I did my time. I realize I made a mistake.”
Although finding Burrows was as easy as looking up his profile online and visiting the block on which he lived, not all sexual offenders are complying with the law and registering within a few days of every birthday. By avoiding registration, they’re risking new felonies, but they’re also avoiding the public scrutiny that Burrows receives.
In January 2003, the state Department of Justice (DOJ) was found to have lost track of more than 33,000 of California’s 102,008 registered sex offenders—a diverse group that includes child molesters convicted of kidnapping children, as well as men guilty of indecent exposure. Through improved data management, that number dropped, but at the end of 2003, almost a quarter of the state’s sex offenders were still off the radar.
Of California registered sex offenders, only a handful have had their information published online so far. But soon, the bulk of California’s most dangerous registered offenders will be profiled online. As of July 2005, California must produce a Web site including their names, photographs, criminal histories and, for the first time, addresses.
Hallye Jordan, press contact for the DOJ, said the department won’t even wait that long. The database is expected to be up around January 1.
Critics wonder at the wisdom of publishing information for only compliant, registered sex offenders, but this information, minus the actual addresses, already has been made available to the public through a CD-ROM database maintained by the DOJ. At sheriff’s-department offices and other law-enforcement locations, members of the public can review profiles on a law-enforcement computer.
The current database breaks down offenders by category. “Serious” describes offenders who’ve been convicted of rape, assault with intent to commit rape, oral copulation or sodomy, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child or dependent adult, continuous sexual abuse of a child, child molestation, sexual penetration, kidnapping with intent to commit specified sex offenses, felony sexual battery or felony enticement of a child for the purpose of prostitution. The term “high risk” refers to those convicted of two or more violent crimes, one of which was a violent sex crime. The crimes must have occurred within five years prior to the high-risk assessment (contrary to the Sacramento Police Department’s Web site, which inaccurately claims that high-risk offenders must have committed sex crimes within the last five years to earn that distinction). “Other” refers to those with convictions including pornography crimes, exhibitionism, misdemeanor sexual battery, incest or spousal rape. “Sexually violent predators” are repeat offenders, with two or more victims, who have mental disorders that make them likely to re-offend. Chew said that Burrows is considered a “sexually violent predator.”
Although these categories instruct law enforcement, which only profiled Sacramento’s 19 “high risk” sex offenders online this summer, Jordan says the distinctions will be dropped when the full database goes online this winter. The full database will include more than 50,000 sex offenders chosen by their convictions. To be profiled online, offenders must have been “convicted of committing a lewd act upon a child under the age of 14, committing a sex crime that included force or fear as an element, or convicted of two or more sex offenses in separate trials.” The list will include all sexually violent predators.
Although it’s hard to know how members of the public will respond once they realize the enormous number of sex offenders in their communities, the 19 already profiled online have seen some repercussions from public notification. Three local offenders contacted for this article mentioned they’d had trouble finding or keeping jobs, either because employers learned about their status or because they feared having to admit their felonies on applications. One of the three, who asked not to be identified by name, fears that his name and face online may have been the real reason that he was fired as a desk clerk; he hasn’t asked to find out.
Another convicted sex offender in Sacramento, who also didn’t want to be named, tried to go back to school until a fellow student alerted his teacher.
“Somebody found my face on the Internet,” said the offender, who hasn’t returned to classes since. “I don’t feel like I can do anything for any length of time without repercussions.”
This man, who we’ll call Arthur, lives in a cramped single room with large bottles of liquor on the floor and multiple computers. The television remained on while Arthur talked, and his attention was occasionally drawn to commercials featuring adolescents.
None of the three offenders interviewed had seen their own profiles online, but Arthur said a friend called him when she saw the state’s database demonstrated at the California State Fair, and there was his name and photo.
Arthur, who blames his own highly sexualized childhood for his attraction to children, has moved, like Burrows, from place to place after neighbors were alerted by fliers about his crimes. For him, the Internet profile is just an extension of a campaign for public notification that already has complicated his life.
In his current location, where no children are allowed, neighbors have refused to get on elevators with him and have rescinded invitations to their homes, and Arthur claimed that somebody’s been calling his new friends, warning them to ask Arthur about his past. Now, maintaining he is unable to find work, Arthur keeps to himself, trusting only one or two close friends. He doesn’t tell them the full extent of his crimes, which include incest.
“I’m a very lonely man,” said Arthur, claiming that he relies entirely on his willpower and his faith in God to keep from re-offending.
Arthur’s isolation from friends, family and community may make it harder to resist his urges, according to the national Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. A 2000 report claimed that “intimacy deficiencies” are an important factor in recidivism rates, which hover between 10 percent and 15 percent after four to five years.
There’s little research on how Megan’s Law affects recidivism, but one of the few reliable studies, according to the California Coalition on Sexual Offending (CCOSO), an organization of medical, legal and law-enforcement professionals who work specifically with sex offenders, came out of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 1995.
The institute studied recidivism rates after the distribution of press releases and letters that included photographs and addresses. It concluded that increased notification did not greatly decrease recidivism.
“At the end of 54 months ‘at risk,’ the notification group had a slightly lower estimated rate of sexual recidivism (19%) than the comparison group (22%),” the report concluded. A caveat was added: “The difference was not found to be statistically significant.”
The report went on to note what differences notification did make: “Offenders who were subjects of community notification were arrested for new crimes much more quickly than comparable offenders who were released without notification,” which supports advocates’ claims that public awareness leads to improved law enforcement.
CCOSO reviewed the institute’s research and prepared a paper of its own: “Using the Internet to Provide Passive Community Notification About Registered Sex Offenders.” CCOSO’s report lists arguments favoring Internet notification: It lets people know they’re living in the presence of sex offenders, helps parents identify risks to their children, takes away the offender’s anonymity and helps people feel safer. But the report gives much more attention to the arguments against.
According to CCOSO, one enormous list of sex offenders confuses the community and gives the impression that a married man who “had intercourse with a willing 15-year-old when he was twenty” is as great a risk as an active, predatory child molester. The report also warned that a lack of work or housing, which Sacramento’s offenders reported, are among the “external stressors” that “are positively correlated to re-offending.” The report also claims that there are documented instances of violence against registrants.
In California, a recent report from the DOJ to the Legislature said there were “no reported instances of improper public use of the data obtained from [Megan’s Law] during 2003.” Chew confirmed that he knew of no incidents of violence against known offenders in Sacramento. But Mike Bennett, a detective with the Placer County Sheriff’s Department, has heard of nonviolent retaliation from community members.
Bennett interviews sexual offenders as they come to register in Placer County, either from prison or from other geographic areas, and he performs community outreach.
In a recent self-defense class, Bennett told an audience of 20 that the most serious sex offenders were predators who thought constantly about how to approach and capture their victims. He likened them to Wile E. Coyote from the cartoon.
How would you describe his pursuit of the roadrunner, Bennett asked his students.
Obsessive, said one woman, and Bennett agreed. According to him, predatory rapists and child molesters are single-minded in their pursuit. If they’re into kids, said Bennett, “they’ve got all the right lures,” like Disney videos. But they’re usually targeting children they know, he explained. “Most are your uncles, your coaches, your stepdads,” said Bennett. “Grandpas. A lot of grandpas.”
Because of the severity of crimes performed by sexually violent predators, Bennett has seen neighbors egg each other on when they sense a common threat. In interviews, he said he’s heard of people picketing sex offenders, trying to force them to move out, and he talked to one man who wanted to sell his house rather than live near a convicted sexual offender. And one overzealous community group fliered a high school and inadvertently identified and embarrassed one of the offender’s victims, who attended that high school.
Bennett said it’s those who are the least educated about sexual offenses who are most likely to retaliate. Insisting he doesn’t sympathize with molesters, Bennett pointed out that some are no longer active, others don’t target children, and most don’t target strangers.
Because not all sex offenders are created equal, Bennett doesn’t want to release 50,000 names and addresses to the public over the Internet. He prefers keeping the criminal database in law-enforcement offices where visitors sign a contract saying they won’t commit crimes against the people they research. They also can’t be convicted sexual offenders themselves. If the information is online, Bennett fears that child molesters could network together.
“If you have to come down to the sheriff’s department to access it, I got your name and your address, I checked your ID, and I know that you’re not a felon,” he said.
Before castration, Burrows was the kind of coyote Bennett described for his class, but since castration, Burrows claims to be inactive. Chew believes that public notification might have helped keep him that way. He’s always being watched, even by the residents of the Marshall Hotel.
On a late afternoon, the desk clerk and a few residents stood around the pockmarked desk in the hotel lobby discussing Megan’s Law—even a bunch of guys living on their own downtown were anticipating the new online profiles.
There are quite a few of them in this building, said Bill Thomas, a Marshall resident. He slyly pointed as another known offender exited the lift and headed outside.
Residents had shared information about Burrows and others for years. James, a middle-aged man in denim who wouldn’t give his last name, said he remembered seeing Burrows’ picture in the bottom window of the Men’s Wearhouse downtown about five years earlier. The hotel had one of those, too, said the desk clerk, but someone took it down.
Thomas, in a police-department T-shirt, said he thought that people who’d done their time for their crimes “should have their peace,” but he was the more lenient of the three. Too often, said the desk clerk, sexual offenders re-offend. “I know [victims.] Forty years later, it still messes with them,” he said.
Although two of the three men advocated for complete public notification and the harshest possible punishment for sex offenders, whenever Burrows’ name came up, the conversation skidded sideways as if to avoid discussing him personally.
“I’ve never seen him do anything,” said the desk clerk.
Because it’s impossible for him to remain anonymous, Burrows doesn’t seem to live with the same kind of isolation that Arthur endured while trying to keep his crimes a secret.
Jake Goldenflame is another known offender whose notoriety actually has improved his relationships with others. He openly admits to having molested young hitchhikers and his daughter; he’s even written a book about how to protect kids, and he appeared as a child molester on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He believes in full disclosure but doesn’t approve of the DOJ’s plans for an online database, unless it includes more information.
In his opinion, the public should know the dates of crimes so that they can gauge whether an offender is active or reformed. They also should learn about any treatment programs an offender has participated in, and how to contact an offender’s parole or probation officer.
“Invite [the parole agent] to a neighborhood meeting,” said Goldenflame. “Ask your questions.” The same could be done with the offender. He needs to know that if he meets clearly stated expectations, the neighborhood will accept him, said Goldenflame.
If communities refuse to accept offenders, they’re constantly on the move. To avoid the hassle, they may be tempted not to register, which can count as a strike. If it’s the third strike, an offender is looking at life in prison. “You become the man with nothing to lose,” said Goldenflame, “and that’s the most dangerous man there is.”
One sex offender, who seems to resemble Goldenflame’s feared “man with nothing to lose,” recently put up a Web site on which he threatened to list the names, pictures and addresses of little children who could entice predators. He claimed that his site was a response to Megan’s Law’s intrusions into his own life.
After a number of days and some Southern California press coverage, the site was removed from the Internet.
Although the debate about Internet notification continues, the DOJ recently submitted a report to the California Legislature touting the success of the first stage of its plan, the statewide database available only from law-enforcement offices.
The state attorney general’s report claimed that “over 46,000 residents viewed Megan’s Law information at local law enforcement agencies and at booths operated by DOJ at various public events.” The report added that Megan’s Law data was instrumental in rerouting a school bus that dropped children off directly in front of a sex offender’s house, and also for having a plumber at a skating rink fired for lying about his criminal history on his application and interacting with children on the job. “Having the public’s eyes and ears open is very helpful to law enforcement,” said Jordan.
In 2003, she added, the list provided 30 “hits,” or instances in which the public recognized a sex offender potentially targeting children. These hits were possible even without an online list of the state’s offenders.
Internet access will add to the public’s vigilance, said Chew.
On the governor’s signing of Assembly Bill 488, which allowed the posting of Megan’s Law information on the Internet, the state attorney general’s office put out a press release: “By authorizing my office to post this information on the Internet, millions of families will be able to use their home or library computer to look up information about registered sex offenders living in their neighborhoods.”
Lailah Muwwakkil wishes such a tool had been available when she was growing up. Now living in Sacramento with her 8-year-old son, Muwwakkil uses poetry as a way to heal from the abuse she suffered from the time she was her son’s age until she was a teenager.
Muwwakkil remembers two different men coming into her room at night, and she remembers being forced to perform oral sex on one of them. Her poem “Creep, Creep, Creeper” includes lines like “They should castrate you, you sick/mentally disturbed fool / For crawlin’ into little girls’ rooms and touching those who never ever wanted to be touched by you.”
Muwwakkil remembered growing up and feeling distrustful, isolated, unable to sleep and uncomfortable with men. She felt like the abuse was her fault. Even as an adult, she occasionally recognizes a scent or remembers an incident that makes her cry.
To her, an Internet list of child molesters sounds like a tool that might have offered her the help she prayed for as a child. She wishes the adults in her life, even her neighbors, had been able to research the men who visited her home and to use any previous convictions to possibly get them away from her.
“If you’ve sexually assaulted a child,” Muwwakkil said, “you need to be profiled. People need to know that you’ve done that.” Muwwakkil said she sympathizes with the offender being inconvenienced by being publicly known. “I’m sorry the individual has to go through that. I am. I’m sorry for their families. But what they really need to think about is what the victims are going through.”
But is an online bulletin board of sexual offenders just another way of punishing people for crimes for which they’ve already done time, purely because we find the crime so mortifying that prison isn’t punishment enough?
Muwwakkil doesn’t think so. To her, a sex offender always retains the potential to re-offend, and the penalties aren’t severe enough to deter them.
“I would love to know who’s in my neighborhood,” she said, though she also said she’d be “terrified” if she found out that a child molester was living a few doors down from her.
Regardless, she’d want to know, because when she was a child, no one heard her soul crying out for help, she said. And she doesn’t want to see that happen to anyone else.