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Neighborhood Watch

“Dear Concerned Citizen,” the letter began. “The Hopkins Police Department received notification from the Minnesota Department of Corrections that a Level III Predatory Offender will be moving into the community.”

Oh, that guy. The one whose parents live across the alley.

“It is not the intention of the Hopkins Police Department to increase fear in the community.”

Oh, I wasn’t fearful. I was pissed. My husband and I had moved to the Twin Cities from New York about three years earlier. I got pregnant a month after we arrived. We bought our home a month before my son was born. Hopped up on hormones, I had done a frenetic search of the Minnesota State Department of Corrections Offender Records database before signing the purchase agreement, scouring my zip code and those nearby to see if any sexual predators lived in the neighborhood. Nothing came up, and although I realized the state only had to report the Level III guys (the ones deemed most likely to re-offend), I was sufficiently mollified and gave it no more thought.

Then, one day, in the middle of a blizzard, our carbon monoxide detector went off. While the guy from Centerpoint was checking things out, our next-door neighbors invited us in for a glass of wine. As I sat there with Hudson on my lap, the young wife dispensed with the gossip of the neighborhood, including the duplex across the alley that was really a “crack house;” the “raging conservative” across the street; and the couple a few houses down who had a pedophile son. At that last revelation, the woman’s husband had looked at me sheepishly and made one of those hand gestures that said “too much wine.” So I put the gossip out of my mind.

Until a few months later, when the city raided the duplex, kicked out the dealers, and new, quieter tenants moved in. I began wondering about the pedophile. His parents were fixtures in the neighborhood – an elderly man who “patrolled” the block every morning and night, and his wife, who always wore black gardening gloves over her hands, even at the National Night Out parties she hosted. But I never saw a son, nor heard mention of him, and as the months passed, he mercifully disappeared from my consciousness once again.

Then came the letter. Local newspapers and news stations began reporting on the story. The Star Tribune referred to the guy as a “serious sex offender” (whatever that means). Little by little, the story emerged. Here was a troubled juvenile, a kind of mini-thug who got into confrontations with his friends (one time wielding a knife) and who had underage girlfriends. The crime in question was the sex he had with a fourteen-year-old girl when he was twenty-three. He was charged with rape. While the police tried to downplay it by emphasizing that the guy had cultivated a relationship with this girl, his “seriousness” as a sex offender played out in incidents on the bike path near our house, where he was charged with indecent exposure and committing a lewd act just yards from a park where kids were playing baseball and football games and where I took my son on nice days.

As more details emerged and I came to realize that I had absolutely no control over whether a sex offender chose to live across the alley, my anger did begin to turn into fear – specifically, the brand of fear that had plagued me in the months following the birth of my son. Actually, it was terror. Annie Dillard writes that terror, with insoluble beauty, is woven into the trim of the garments all creatures wear. If that is true, then I wore nothing but trim. The terror constricted me, leaving me as useless as a mummy. It was the shock that jolted me awake at three in the morning, a phantom hand on my throat. It was mental blueprints of escape from fire, plans over which I obsessed and never quite finished. My son could never be protected enough; I was not up to the task; I wouldn’t be the mom who, when her car went careening off the bridge, would be able to undo the car seat straps in time. My mother called it anxiety, and while I could cop to the fact that it was probably a biological reaction to new motherhood, I called it by its real name. Terror is the recognition that despite appearances to the contrary, we are surrounded by chaos.

But we get through it. Every day becomes slightly less terror-filled. The baby grows, becomes less helpless, pushes away your breast to watch a bird at the birdfeeder, begins to walk, then runs, then starts going down the stairs, rejecting your helping hand by saying “I do.” And we learn to relinquish control to whatever, to pick our battles, to let our toddler win once in a while so that maybe, once in a while, we can win, too. All of these little adventures combine to lessen the terror that is, after all, an utterly unsustainable state (if you want to live long enough to see your kid graduate, anyway). Nature is merciful, after all.

But then this damn sex offender moved in and it all started again. I found myself up at three a.m. On morning walks I’d look down to see my son trying to wrench himself free from my new iron grasp. I compulsively craned my neck out my son’s window to see what was happening at the sex offender’s house, to see if any preparations for his arrival were being made.

When the night of the community notification meeting came, I left my husband and son to continue their bedtime rituals and headed to Gethsemane Lutheran Church, hoping to hide in a corner of a half-empty church. When I arrived, the enormous parking lot was full and I had to park on the curb. People streamed into the church. As I entered, a woman handed me a sheet of paper. A young, startled face stared back at me. After finding a seat in a pew, I studied the fact sheet on my new Level 3 Sexual Predator. He was a young man – twenty-eight years old. His blue eyes were close-set, his mouth an angry seam. At thirty-one, I suddenly felt as old as my mother.

The meeting started with a video. I recognized my father’s voice immediately. A veteran anchor for one of the stations in town, my father often did pro bono work for charitable organizations. Apparently he’d made this video a few years ago for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, and now I heard him advising me that I was seeing him because “a Level 3 Sexual Predator has moved into your community.” I hadn’t even told him. I realized he’d be reporting on this meeting tonight. Seeing his face on the large projection screen hanging above the altar was surreal, to say the least. His voice was matter-of-fact but calm – soothing, almost. Here was a reasonable man having a reasonable response to a situation few of us will avoid, whether we know about it or not. The ghost of adolescence past reared up in me and I wanted to scream at the screen: “Don’t tell me to calm down, Dad!”

Five minutes later, a representative from the Department of Corrections stepped up to the podium and began a twenty-minute speech on sentencing guidelines, risk level assessments, and, finally, the details of this particular case. The guy’s crimes were outlined, as was his inability or unwillingness to complete court-ordered treatment programs. As a juvenile, the DOC rep told us, he’d exposed himself to staff at a treatment center and been charged with another count of indecent exposure. I could almost picture it: an angry kid pulling down his pants to humiliate the people trying to help him. Does prison, I wondered, really provide the therapeutic setting a guy like him needs? He was designated a Level 3 offender, the DOC rep finished up, because he was considered more likely to re-offend based on his past crimes and his progress in rehab programs.

The crowd listened respectfully, but it was clear they were getting restless. Throughout, the crowd listened respectfully, but it was clear they were getting restless. They had questions to ask, points to make.

“I own a bar in town,” a woman said into a microphone when the Q&A began. “If I see this guy, can I refuse admittance to him?” Murmurs of assent rippled through the crowd.

“Well,” one of the law enforcement officials said slowly. “You can technically refuse service to anyone, but I would urge you to consider that these notification laws are contingent on people not harassing the individual or discriminating against him.”

How can I not discriminate against him? I thought. I wondered if anyone else was wondering the same thing. Other voices clamored to be heard:

“What’s the address of where he’s staying?”

“We can’t tell you that,” the DOC rep said. I wanted to run down the aisle, grab the questioner’s shoulder and tell him the predator’s exact address. “He lives across the alley from me,” I wanted to scream. But all he said to the DOC rep was: “Well, if I find out, can I tell my neighbors?” A lawyer on the dais stood up and spoke at length about the importance of keeping these laws on the books, that “folks like the ACLU” would like nothing better than to see them overturned, that our behavior as citizens determines the fate of these notification laws, that these predators who have served their full sentences have a right to privacy and decent treatment and that anything less than that threatens the very laws that allowed us to meet that night.

Then an older lady stood up and made the comment: “I feel like this guy has all the rights and we have none.”

I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the very inevitability of her comment, but something about what she said shocked me into a state of reasonable calm, the kind my father had so maddeningly projected on the screen, and in life. Through the fear and anger and anxiety of the moment, a thought sped through my brain: She’s wrong.

This guy, he had no rights. I mean, he had the right to return to his parents’ house after serving his full sentence and he had the right to get a job. But we had the right to convene a community-wide meeting about his sexual history, had the right to scrutinize his photo, to know how tall he was (5’10″) and how much he weighed (182 pounds), and that his crime was that he “engaged in sexual contact with victim (female, age fourteen).” That “contact included penetration” and that “the offender was known to victims.” He was afforded the right to be refused service in local businesses, to have his address hunted down by watchful neighbors, to be monitored carefully by everyone in the neighborhood, all of whom knew about his sexual proclivities and crimes.

While those further removed from the community, and perhaps even within it, might decry this guy’s loss of privacy (as I would have before I had children), I was not concerned about how he’d cope with his notoriety. I was concerned only that he stay away from my family and me, any women and children in my neighborhood, and that he not re-offend. In this, I realized, the entire community had a stake. And I knew I hadn’t been the only one on my block who’d lost a couple hours of sleep over this, who held on to their children a little tighter, who were dismayed to find they, too, had NIMBY tendencies despite the years railing against other people who had them. For the moment, this commonality – this community – passed for order. While I still controlled nothing personally, as a community we could exert a little control over our circumstances. Not much, but a little. Maybe it wasn’t all chaos. Maybe I could let my son walk down the stairs by himself. After all, there were a lot more of us than there were of him.

If anything made the news more terrifying, it was the very inevitability of it. Epilogue: Exactly thirty-two days after the community notification meeting, and two weeks after he was released from jail after serving his full prison sentence, the neighborhood sexual predator raped a sixteen-year-old boy. I stared at the headline on the Star Tribune website for five minutes without being able to move. When I raised my eyes from the computer screen, I looked across the alley and noticed, for the first time, a child’s plastic basketball hoop in the predator’s back yard. The boy had apparently met our neighbor online and set up a meeting with him despite knowing he was a Level III sex offender. He stayed at that house across the alley over a weekend, where the predator raped him repeatedly, afraid to leave.

The predator had been led out of the house in handcuffs about ten days later and was now in jail awaiting charges. His new mug shot revealed nothing new, besides a new haircut and eyes that, instead of looking startled, seemed full of hate. If anything made the news more terrifying, it was the very inevitability of it. Inevitable, despite assurances from the DOC and cops that only five per cent of even Level III offenders re-offend. But there was something else, and I was too ashamed to admit to it to anyone besides my mother because it seemed somehow wrong: I was deeply relieved. It was as if I were no longer holding my breath. I didn’t have to work around this guy anymore. I no longer had to fear him or his chances of re-offending. He was done. It was done. He’d be in jail for a while, and when he got out, we wouldn’t be here to worry about him. But when I e-mailed the news to my father, he only replied: “So, you won’t have to worry about this guy for the rest of your life. But, there will be another, someday.”

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