News

Making their case

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

Concerned Citizens of Auburn and Federal Way has launched a solid defense against a halfway house for sex predators, but their main arguments — a homeschool and playground across the street — might not be enough to have the canyon removed from the list.

“It’s not a park district or a school district playground. I don’t think it’s compelling enough to get it dropped from the list,” said Steve Williams, spokesman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Still, DSHS Secretary Dennis Braddock said his agency is looking into the Zicarrelli family’s homeschool and playground to see if they are enough to prevent a transitional facility for sex offenders from being built nearby.

DSHS officials announced in December that Peasley Canyon was one of three King County sites for less-restrictive housing for civilly committed sex offenders who made enough progress in their treatment programs to be eligible to move out of the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island and into transitional housing.

Still, Concerned Citizens of Auburn and Federal Way’s legal arguments against the site are mounting along with fears the facility might end up in south King County.

So far, the remaining proposed sites for the facility are in Seatac and Peasley Canyon. A proposed site in Carnation was dropped from consideration after DSHS learned there was a school bus stop within the 600-foot buffer around the site.

At a community meeting at Green River Community College last Thursday, Mark Davis, director of the McNeil Island transitional facility, told the crowd of 2,500 people he wanted to dispel a myth.

“If you think you’re going to get a halfway house where people come and go as they please and get away with all sort of behavior, that’s not how we do business,” he said.

Still, lawmakers are working to get legislation on a fast track to protect neighborhoods from violent offenders.

Offenders who reoffend

In 1972, John Henry Mathers, now 50, was convicted of second-degree assault and indecent liberties after he attacked a 12-year-old girl with a three-inch knife and abducted an 11-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister at knifepoint and sexually assaulted them.

In 1980, he was convicted of second-degree escape and assault with a deadly weapon after he broke out of a state work-release facility and fled to California, where he stabbed a 22-year-old woman.

While residing at a work release facility in Tacoma in 1981, Mathers met a 19-year-old woman while on a four-hour pass and got her to invite him to her home, where he stabbed her in the stomach with a screwdriver and then sexually assaulted her. He escaped from the work-release facility a few days later when police brought in the woman to identify him.

Police captured him a month later and he pleaded guilty to second-degree rape. The state dropped the escape charge as part of his plea agreement.

In 1989, he escaped from the Washington State Reformatory Farm in Snohomish County, but he turned himself in two months later.

He was a prison inmate until 1997, but instead of releasing him back into society, a judge and jury ordered him into the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

Since then, he has progressed enough in his treatment that he recently was transferred from the institutional confines of the center to the halfway house on the island.

Gary Wayne Harris, 48, lives in the transitional housing with Mathers.

In 1985, he was convicted of attempted indecent liberties after he tried to molest two girls, ages 3 and 5. He was convicted of indecent liberties again in 1987 when he grabbed a 44-year-old developmentally delayed woman and tried to pull her into an alley.

In 1991, he was convicted of third-degree rape and first-degree rape of a child after he forced a 33-year-old developmentally delayed woman to have sex with him. During the investigation, police learned he had sexually assaulted a 9-year-old girl who lived in the housing area where he lived.

He was civilly committed at the Special Commitment Center in 2000.

Casper William Ross, 40, the third halfway house resident who moved in earlier this month, was convicted of second-degree sexual abuse in Oregon in 1980, when he was 17, after he sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl.

In 1987, he was convicted of first-degree rape with a deadly weapon after he kidnapped a 12-year-old girl at knifepoint, took her to a secluded area and raped her. After the assault, Ross drove away and left the girl there. He was civilly committed in 1999.

No one argues the residents in the potential transitional housing facilities committed dangerous, serious crimes and are of the highest likelihood to reoffend. State officials promise there will be enough safety precautions at the facilities to protect residents, but neighbors aren’t convinced security cameras and radio communications systems will be enough to apprehend sex offender intent on escape.

That the one-lane road leading to the facility is rutted and potholed increases their concerns that police or firefighters would be able to respond quick enough.

Changing the laws

In an effort to assuage growing fears, legislators are pushing several versions of legislation aimed at monitoring sex offenders and governing the location of the facilities.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines) is sponsoring a bill intended to preclude halfway houses in residential or commercial areas, and Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) co-sponsored similar legislation in the Senate.

On Feb. 5, Peasley Canyon residents will testify before the Senate’s Children and Family Services and Corrections Committee in support of another bill Eide sponsored that would include homeschools as sites near which the halfway houses can’t be built.

Eide also sponsored legislation that would require sex offenders to wear electronic home monitoring devices with geographic positioning systems 24 hours a day.

“The minute that person leaves the facility, they’re like a little blip on the map and we know where they are,” she said.

Rep. Skip Priest (R-Federal Way) said legislators are “all looking for ways to apply common sense to this.” He sponsored legislation limiting the state’s authority to preempt local laws governing where the facilities could be located.

“The point of the Legislature could not have been to preempt to the point that it ends up in a residential community,” he said. “If there’s one thing that cries out for thoughtful deliberation, it’s this. Preemption really undermines that. Preemption is just a bad idea, anyway.”

Upthegrove emphasized the state isn’t the government entity asking for the transitional housing.

“The federal courts are saying that,” he said. “We in the Legislature are not making the decision to let these people out. The Legislature’s role is the process to do what the court said and that is to provide a less-restrictive alternative.”

Still, Upthegrove said the Legislature this year will seek to make facility locations fair and safe.

“Having two sites in south King County doesn’t seem fair, and putting it in a residential neighborhood doesn’t seem to protect public safety,” he said.

Eide said lawmakers want a solution that works for the whole state.

“This was just put through, and we’re finding glitches in the system and we want to correct them,” she said. “This is nothing any of us wants. We’re doing everything in our power to fix it.”

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