Mr. Molester's Neighborhood

Ohio wants you to know if a sex offender lives nearby. Civil libertarians want to give perverts their privacy.

Full Frontal
Four years ago, Julie Candela learned that a sexual predator was moving in down the street. - Walter  Novak
Four years ago, Julie Candela learned that a sexual predator was moving in down the street.
William Kennedy reclines in his sweltering apartment, flesh sagging from his shirtless, 74-year-old body. He dabs sweat from his brow with brown napkins as a small fan blows a pitiable breeze. He is, to outside appearances, a tired old man who is waiting to die.

Yet Cuyahoga County regards him as a danger. So dangerous that his photo and address are posted on the sheriff's website. So dangerous that his neighbors were alerted when he moved into his apartment last October, after serving 12 years in prison.

William Kennedy is a sexual predator.

"It makes me feel terrible inside, knowing that I was a sex offender," he says, although he later claims to have been wrongfully convicted.

In September 1985, Kennedy responded to a newspaper ad seeking a baby-sitter. For a place to stay and a fifth of Black Velvet each week, he looked after two boys -- one 11, the other 4 -- for two months. During that time, Kennedy fondled them and tried to have oral and anal sex with the older boy, the children testified.

After serving time for rape and gross sexual imposition, Kennedy became one of the 121 convicted sexual predators and 1,274 sexual offenders living in Cuyahoga County. A law passed in May by the Ohio Assembly will now make it easier for neighbors to find out who they are and where they live. In the past, only neighbors to the immediate left, right, and across the street received notifications from the sheriff's department. Under the new law, the department is required to inform all neighbors within a 1,000-foot radius.

The statute was meant to smooth situations like the one Julie Candela found herself in four years ago, when she opened her mailbox on West 76th and learned that Harvey West, a sexual predator, was moving in down the street. She wasn't supposed to receive the notice -- indeed, the sheriff's department was legally barred from even notifying her -- but someone in the neighborhood presumably thought Candela should know, because she co-chaired the block club.

Candela was at a loss. If she told anyone, she might be liable if someone beat up West or burned down his house. But she couldn't sit on the information -- not with so many children and single mothers in the neighborhood. So she spread the word at the next block-club meeting. She even invited West, although he couldn't come because he had to work that day.

"He kept a very low profile, never caused any trouble," Candela says of West. "But I'll tell you: Everybody on that street knew who he was. We all watched."

The state's new law hasn't been without growing pains. State Representative Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland) set the perimeter at 1,000 feet because "in a rural community, 1,000 feet might be your nearest neighbor, plus one."

But in denser cities like Cleveland, 1,000 feet could mean 600 houses, and sheriff's deputies must deliver notifications by hand. One jokes that he feels like a mailman. A new computer program will soon let the department notify residents by mail, but not everyone believes the information should be so readily available.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit against the department, claiming its posting of sex offenders' personal information on the Internet without a court hearing violates their right to due process. The suit is on hold, pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on similar cases in Connecticut and Alaska -- a decision expected to have a major impact on sex-offender registry laws across the country.

"Obviously, sex offenders are political pariahs," says Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the Ohio ACLU. "The fact that their crimes are particularly disagreeable doesn't mean we get to forget about their legal and constitutional rights."

Those who favor stricter notification say it's justified by the recidivism rate. "It's like they can't be cured," argues Schmidt. But the numbers are far from conclusive. A major study in 1998 found that only 13 percent of sex offenders are likely to commit another sex crime within five years of their first conviction. Another study put the recidivism rate for child molesters with male victims as high as 40 percent. Most agree that incest offenders are the least likely to reoffend.

It's easy to see why even the tiniest recidivism rate would give parents pause, says Michael Aronoff, a court psychologist who has evaluated about 100 sexual offenders for Cuyahoga County.

"I have two opinions -- that's one of a scientist and one of a parent," Aronoff says. "When you're a parent, a recidivism rate of 1 percent is too high. And when you're a scientist, a recidivism rate of 1 percent is next to nothing."

The ACLU case hinges on the sheriff's department's decision to publicize names and addresses of all sexual offenders, whether they're serial child rapists or dudes who play grab-ass after one too many drinks. It's a distinction that resonates with Harvey West, the predator who once lived in Candela's neighborhood.

After a chaotic childhood, West says, he developed a sexual fixation and began groping women's breasts on buses and in stores. "This became an obsession," he says. "It wasn't something I did every day, but it was something I did every other day."

In 1987, when he was 21 years old, he was convicted of gross sexual imposition. Less than two years later, West pleaded guilty to two more counts involving two more women. He served a year and a half in prison and was declared a predator.

Age and counseling have put his life on track, he says. He works at a factory where he polishes tire rims. He got married in April and moved in with his wife's parents on West 50th Street. He admits that he still has temptations, but they're nowhere near as strong.

But being branded a sexual predator makes it impossible to forget his past, he says. "Kinda makes me feel like I've been convicted of a crime all over again and I'm still serving the sentence. I did the entire time, day for day. I didn't get parole or anything. And yet it keeps going on. It'll never end."

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