Operation Boo keeps pedophiles in check on Halloween
The porch light is off. No Halloween decorations are present. A ring of the doorbell goes unanswered. So far, so good.
Parole agent Greg Cundiff knocks and identifies himself. Only then does Brian open the door, following instructions given to him earlier. Like more than 100 other convicted child molesters paroled in Sacramento County, Brian is under house arrest tonight—an attempt by law enforcement to keep parolees out of temptation’s way during this children’s holiday.
The smell of pine cleaner envelops Cundiff and Sheriff’s Detective Gary Bettenhausen as they enter the impeccably clean home. Brian is one of Cundiff’s best parolees: polite and deferential. “He works a good program,” the agent says.
After a bit of banter, Brian settles down to talk to a reporter while Cundiff and Bettenhausen make a walk-through inspection. Cundiff verifies that Brian’s daily log is up-to-date and that his refrigerator and cabinets contain no alcohol. Things appear to be in order.
Then Bettenhausen motions for Cundiff to come into Brian’s bedroom. Cundiff doesn’t like what he sees: a glass candy jar, with a jack-o'-lantern on the front, containing roughly two dozen individually wrapped sour gumballs.
“What part of ‘no possession of candy’ don’t you understand?” Cundiff shouts out from the other room.
Brian protests mildly, saying he bought the candy the previous week because he likes gum. “I’ve got a sweet tooth,” he says, grinning sheepishly. He then suggests the officers can throw them out if they want.
Cundiff prefers to count them instead, telling Brian that there had better be the same number left when other agents come back to recheck at midnight.
“They just can’t help themselves,” says Cundiff, gesturing toward the now-empty candy jar. “They know the rules; they’ll obey most of the rules—then this.”
Tonight, those rules dictate that parolees stay home from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. and not answer the door except for law enforcement. Additionally, they are prohibited from displaying Halloween decorations, either inside or outside of the home, are not to wear costumes and cannot hand out or be in possession of candy.
“You’re lucky it wasn’t another agent who found these,” Cundiff admonishes, telling a reporter that if he wasn’t personally acquainted with Brian’s parole history, which includes generally good compliance with the wealth of restrictions placed on paroled sex offenders, Brian could have been looking at a violation, which could have brought him a year in prison.
Actually, Cundiff won’t have Brian rechecked, but he doesn’t let Brian know that. It’s that kind of uncertainty—not knowing whether the knock on the door is an agent or trick-or-treaters—that’s largely responsible for keeping parolees in line, Cundiff says.
A joint effort between the California Department of Corrections and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, “Operation Boo” is the brainchild of Cundiff and Bettenhausen. Four teams of officers targeted 104 paroled child molesters and rapists this Halloween. Launched seven years ago, the program is now being copied by a handful of law enforcement agencies throughout the state, including those in Shasta and Yuba counties.
Sacramento County is home to more than 3,200 registered sex offenders. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of those are convicted child molesters, according to Bettenhausen.
Cundiff characterizes Brian as honest—which is not to say that the parolee has never lied to his agent. “You’ve lied a couple times, but you’ve always admitted it,” he says, noting that many others don’t.
Bettenhausen nods, explaining that with so much at stake, there’s a good bet that if a parolee lies about something small—such as where they’ve been or how they got there—there’s “a good bet they’re doing something wrong.”
“So you’ve got to check out the small stuff,” he adds.
An example: One man they visit this evening—a convicted rapist—is asked where he was at 3 p.m. He tells officers he was riding his bike home from work. In fact, he was riding light rail. How do officers know?
“I saw the ticket he got [from a Regional Transit cop] for boarding without a pass,” Bettenhausen says, not terribly fazed by the offender’s knee-jerk reaction.
There seems to be very little that goes on in the lives of paroled sex offenders that agents don’t know about. Daily logs, checked randomly throughout the month, detail all comings and goings of parolees and are cross-checked with information gathered by agents during unannounced visits and drive-bys, phone calls to employers, family members and friends.
Handsome, open and easy-going, Brian clearly enjoys a certain rapport with Cundiff, although there’s no question in Brian’s mind, he says, who’s calling the shots.
“I don’t even want the appearance of doing anything wrong,” Brian says. “There are gray areas, but the bottom line is, Cundiff’s always right.”
This is Brian’s third Halloween on parole. He hopes it’s his last. Released from Solano State Prison Oct. 21, 1998, after serving 85 percent of the three-year sentence he received for molesting his 7-year-old daughter and her female friend, Brian’s parole will be up in October 2001.
“Each [Halloween] is a monumental countdown to when I’m released and can lead a fairly normal life,” he says.
Brian admits that he’s nervous tonight. But not because he feels tempted. Rather, he’s anxious about being placed in proximity of children at any time, as he’s working to be “above reproach” in all aspects of his life, he says.
“I’m just like, ‘Please don’t ring the doorbell,’ “ he says, adding that he’s asked friends to come over for reinforcement and to enter through the back door.
Brian, whose girlfriend of a year and a half, has agreed to marry him, can’t answer with certainty the question of whether it’s likely he’ll re-offend.
“I never thought I would offend in the first place,” he says, recalling that six months before he molested, he had been watching television news reports of Ellie Nestler—the woman accused of gunning down in open court the man accused of molesting her son in Sonora.
“I remember thinking, ‘Yeah!’ I thought it was a great thing. But four months later, I was doing the same thing. So, since I didn’t ever think I’d do it in the first place, I can’t honestly say I won’t again. But I don’t want to, and I’m taking every precaution so I never will.”
Like many child molesters, Brian says he was molested himself as a young boy, starting when he was about 2 years old and ending when he was about 7. Before his crime and incarceration, however, he says he never put two and two together, never considered that what happened to him was out of the ordinary. But he says he understands that to take responsibility for his actions, he can’t lay the blame at the feet of the sister who molested him.
“If I look in the rearview mirror of my life, I’ve shattered everything and everyone around me,” Brian says. “I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again … so I need people around me who know my past and will help me not do anything. I’ve got to be set up for victory. I can’t be set up to fail anymore.”
As to the extra restrictions placed on him and others this evening, Brian says he “completely understands” the reasoning behind them and agrees these safeguards need to be in place.
Cundiff and Bettenhausen wind their way through three single-room occupancy hotels in Midtown, up and down starkly painted staircases, in and out of dark hallways where roaches are unfazed by the glare of their flashlights.
Everyone who is supposed to be home is, and the officers keep up a steady stream of banter with parolees as they verify whether certain conditions specific to each parolee are being met. Cundiff’s favorite line upon opening each refrigerator—"Whose beer is this?” usually elicits a grin on the part of parolees, most of whom aren’t allowed to have alcohol and none of whom, this evening, have any in their fridges.
“Proactive,” Cundiff says later, walking down the K Street Mall. “That’s what it’s all about, man. I really think it makes a difference. There are 104 people who shouldn’t be out, ever, who are home tonight because of this.”
With his Sacramento Jazz Jubilee polo shirt, athletic shorts and white hair, Leonard looks like someone’s friendly grandfather. To Cundiff and Bettenhausen, this guy ranks right up there on the list of Top-10 deviant, hard-core sex offenders. Leonard is on parole after serving time for multiple counts of child molestation.
Unlike the men dwelling in the SROs, Leonard lives in one of the higher-end apartment complexes in Midtown, where rent averages $1,500 per month. By the time officers enter the residence, Leonard has already angered Cundiff. The agent places his finger over the peephole and knocks. If his parolee were obeying the rules, Leonard would ask who was at the door before opening it.
“See what I’m up against?” Cundiff says, to no one in particular. Walking through the apartment, the agent hits Leonard with a barrage of questions: Why didn’t he ask who was there? Why did he open the door if he couldn’t see who was there? Who did he call last? Who called him last?
Leonard stands there, shaking his head, offering, “I don’t know” for an answer, over and over again. Cundiff and Bettenhausen aren’t buying. They’ve visited this guy each year on Halloween. He knows the rules. Additionally, Leonard has been in Cundiff’s relapse prevention group for 14 months—a group whose mission was not taken seriously by Leonard, according to the agent.
As Cundiff opens up a file folder encased in a canvas satchel in Leonard’s dining room, Bettenhausen finds a silver bowl filled with various candies sitting on a bookshelf. Individually wrapped.
“OK, smarty-pants,” he says. “Remember all the times you mocked me [in group], saying I’d never catch you? Well, you’re caught. Sit down and don’t move.”
Leonard mumbles something about the same candy being there the year before. Bettenhausen rolls his eyes and proceeds to the bedroom to rummage through drawers and check under the mattress.
Searches such as these are routine for high-risk sex offenders on parole. “They’re still in our custody,” Cundiff says, “we’ve just taken the walls and moved them way out.”
The agent continues to comb through a binder found inside Leonard’s canvass satchel. Neatly placed in the binder, along with materials from the relapse prevention class, are news clippings of various stories dealing with challenges to California’s sex-offender laws and sex offenders in general, including letters to the editor and Dear Abby clippings.
“Why are these in here?” Cundiff queries. “Isn’t it interesting that you spend your time in class mocking the [process], but you’ve got these materials and the facts about your case right on top here where you can always read them? Why is that?”
Throughout the various interrogations, Leonard answers questions with questions—most of them of the “Who? Me?” variety. At one point, Leonard begins to wheeze slightly.
Cundiff turns his attention to Leonard’s computer files, trying to determine whether his parolee has written any more salacious material (that’s Leonard’s “bag” according to the agent). Bettenhausen does a sweep of the kitchen. Various framed photographs line the breakfast bar—most of them of Leonard’s minor grandchildren. Leonard maintains he’s been given permission to have these, even though they are of minor children, as long as he “keeps them in one place.” A photo on the refrigerator is dated March 1993—one month prior to Leonard’s conviction and sentencing. In it, a much thinner Leonard is flanked on either side by minor children, probably relatives, and two other adults.
Bettenhausen is clearly put off by the photo and its placement in time between Leonard’s arrest and sentencing.
Some 20 minutes pass since officers first entered the apartment. Cundiff expresses his “serious” disappointment in Leonard’s actions, but is clearly less agitated than when he first arrived. For the moment, Leonard escapes a trip to jail, but Cundiff is clear that other agents will follow up with Leonard that night and will determine what will happen to him.
By 11 p.m., the teams regroup. Between the four teams, four arrests have been made. Two were taken in for drug-related offenses, while another was found to be in possession of undisclosed “prohibited” material. The fourth parolee was caught handing out candy to children.
“There’s a saying about pedophiles," Bettenhausen says as the shift ends. "Only ham is cured."