Copyright 2006 Bangor Daily News
Maintaining Maine's registry an unending job for police BANGOR, Maine — From the front steps of her Ohio Street apartment building, Rebecca Millar called out to the stranger who just moments before had tucked a flier behind her mailbox.
By JEFF TUTTLE
Bangor Daily News
"Excuse me!? ... Excuse me!" the young mother beckoned as she poked her head though the front door and waved the small paintbrush she had been using inside.
"You had me worried," she said as the man, plainclothes Bangor police Detective Jeff Small, returned to explain: A registered sex offender lives in the apartment building next door, he said, and under a long-standing city ordinance, the detective was using the fliers to notify neighbors.
"Oh, he already told us," Millar said matter-of-factly, adding she had no concerns about the man with whom she often exchanges pleasantries when he walks his dog past her house.
"That's not typical," Small later said of both Millar's calm reaction and the offender's apparent willingness to share his past with the neighborhood.
More often than not, Small - who maintains and updates the city's sex offender registry - is met with concerned looks and a host of questions. And some of the city's approximately 115 sex offenders are not as diligent about registering as Millar's neighbor.
For its population, Bangor has a relatively high concentration of registered sex offenders, according to information on the state's online registry. Bangor, Portland and Lewiston have roughly the same number of sex offenders living and working within their boundaries although Bangor is smaller than the other two cities.
The registry, which contains information about more than 2,200 sex offenders in the state, has come under fire in recent weeks after a Canadian man used it to locate and gun down two registered sex offenders at their central Maine homes, according to police. The killings sparked a review of how the state distributes information about sex offenders and which offenders should be listed.
While the state maintains the online registry, communities use different methods to notify neighborhoods and track down sex offenders if they fail to update their registration.
Police say it's no small task keeping track of the comings and goings of sex offenders, some of whom are homeless or move every few months.
It's no small task, but in Bangor it's a task that falls to Small.
Back on Ohio Street, the Bangor detective said he, like Millar, doesn't necessarily consider her 40-year-old neighbor Richard Thompson a serious threat for a couple of reasons.
For one, he has had no further troubles with the law since his 1985 felony conviction for unlawful sexual contact. Second, he already has been in contact with local police to ask questions about registering.
To notify or not?
But later, on Center Street, it's a different story.
Small said this offender, Richard Decesere, 59, poses a higher risk based on his lengthy criminal record. Small plans to come back to the neighborhood with more fliers after running out in Decesere's three-story apartment building, a massive structure with peeling gray paint.
Outside the building he runs into a young couple heading for work.
"Let us know if you see anything suspicious," Small told them before they drove away, the man studying the white flier.
When it comes to notifying neighborhoods, each community handles the task differently.
For instance, Bangor police go door-to-door to notify neighbors of a sex offender's presence regardless of the severity of the crime. South Portland does the same, and puts the information on its Web site.
The Penobscot County Sheriff's Department, which handles several outlying towns, goes door-to-door only if the offender is considered a high risk to repeat his crime. Lesser offenders are made known to town and school officials, who are free to disseminate the information as they see fit.
Some smaller towns such as Glenburn send letters to every resident and hold special town meetings when a sex offender moves to town.
Tim Jameson and Steven Onacki have been to several of those meetings.
Jameson, a detective with the Penobscot County Sheriff's Department, and Onacki, a probation officer now based in Biddeford, have seen townspeople react with everything from anger to understanding.
"I have a love-hate relationship with" those meetings, Jameson said Friday. "They can be very difficult to break this kind of news to parents, but it's also a chance to give them the facts."
Onacki, one of the first sex offender specialists in the state, said those facts include that sex offenders known to the community are safer than those who aren't.
"I would tell them that we just showed you his picture. You know where he lives," Onacki said. "The dangerous guy is the one who has never been caught or convicted."
One of the most common questions townspeople have, Onacki said, is how a sex offender could be allowed to live so close to a school or park, for instance.
While the question is tough, the answer is simple: There is no state law preventing sex offenders from living anywhere they choose. A judge, however, can impose probation restrictions limiting where an offender may live.
In addition to explaining the law to residents, another challenge for police is to make sure those who are required to register do so.
Such was the case Thursday on Center Street, where Small stopped to remind one sex offender to update his registration or face time behind bars.
The man, Lester Lannigan, 48, was at work, but his wife was home.
"It's not worth 15 days in jail, is it?" Small asked her through the open doorway.
"It would be a vacation for me," Deborah Lannigan joked as she tried to keep a litter of kittens from running outside.
Later that day, she called Small to assure him that her husband was completing the needed paperwork.
'You know they're around'
Lannigan has an address. Some sex offenders don't, or perhaps list a homeless shelter as their address, as is often the case with the Acadia Recovery Community on Indiana Avenue.
Michael Roberts, deputy district attorney in Penobscot County, recently indicted one homeless sex offender who refused to register because he had no permanent address.
The excuse didn't sit well with the longtime prosecutor.
"I understand that it's tough for people on this list," Roberts said. "But if they play games with us, they're going to go to jail."
Most sex offenders have to update their registration every 90 days. They provide a new photograph and set of fingerprints each time.
Most, like all of the offenders mentioned here, are on the list for life. And many are in larger cities, where counseling, apartments, and probation offices are readily available.
While notifying Ohio Street neighbors Thursday morning, Detective Small handed a flier to Josh Ashmore, who was helping to prepare his girlfriend's house for sale.
"It's good to know," said Ashmore, adding that living in the city hadn't sat well with him.
"I guess you know they're around. There's just a lot of different people out there," he said. "I'm moving anyway."
Detective Small, who has handed out thousands of fliers during the three years he has maintained the list in Bangor, has heard it before.
And when a neighbor talks about moving, he relays to them a simple fact, he said.
"I just tell them no matter where you go, there are going to be sex offenders living somewhere around you."
Keeping track of Maine's sex offenders