Megan’s Law inflames town to town

Dealing with a sex offender is as delicate a task as defusing a bomb. Unlike most criminals, sex offenders, due to their sexual preferences, are oftentimes doomed to re-offend. The Wetterling Act of 1994 — in which Level III offenders were mandated to register in every state they moved to — was the first real effort to diffuse these human bombs. The second effort came a little more than a year ago: Megan’s Law. Under Megan’s Law, the offender’s name, address, criminal history and even picture are made public.
Thanks to Megan’s Law, the Como neighborhood was able to jettison its very own Level III offender, Lonnie Michael Kazeck. Then, not two weeks later, thanks to the same Megan’s Law, a St. Cloud neighborhood was able to eject its very own sex offender, Lonnie Michael Kazeck, on December 8th. In fact, thanks to Megan’s Law, since he got out of prison on Nov. 16, Minnesota’ s very own Level III has lived in at least four different locations. I made an attempt to visit him in his new hometown of Duelm.
As I approached the town, the first sign I encountered read like a bitterly ironic “not welcome” message for Kazeck: “Watch for children.” Thirty seconds later, I realized I had passed through the town. This guy sure didn’t pick a place conducive for blending in. On my second pass, making sure not to blink, I pulled into the local pub’s parking lot. As I entered the bar, four camouflaged men resembling something out of “Star Wars” marched out and hopped onto their snowmobiles in the parking lot. This guy didn’t pick the most urban neighborhood in the state, either.
I sat down, ordered a Coke, and checked out the area. Luckily, the Vikings were playing the Cardinals on TV, so there was a bevy of people in the bar — half the town, perhaps. I opened my backpack and retrieved some articles from the St. Cloud Times to brief myself on the matter.
Kazeck was sentenced to over nine years in prison for molesting a boy under 10 in 1990. Due to the fact that he didn’t complete any of the reform programs in prison, he was forced to serve his full sentence. Even though his behavior in prison wasn’t exceptional, authorities no longer have control over where he lives, because Kazeck has served his full sentence. Not surprisingly, the people in St. Cloud wanted him not only out of their neighborhoods, but out of town as well.
Apparently, public pressure awarded the residents their wish, because after moving to two different locations in St. Cloud, he moved again to Duelm, where another meeting was held. At this meeting, residents were urged not to resort to violence when dealing with Kazeck. Nonetheless, some residents asked where he lived exactly, and what sort of vehicle he drove, making authorities nervous.
After each departure, residents from each community have expressed joy. Southeast Minneapolis resident Bill Dane, for instance, said of Kazeck’s departure: “I’m delighted. There’s no other way to put it.”
I found out Duelm residents are no exception. They are eager for his departure. So eager that things seem downright explosive. When I asked a waitress at the bar what she thought of the matter, she replied with brevity and clarity. “The freak? He’s a goner.” A man wearing a deer hunting jacket overheard our conversation and made sure he knew what we were talking about. “Are you talking about the queer? He’s my neighbor.” The man maintained that Kazeck — or someone living with him — owned a gun and was seen shooting it into the air one afternoon. At this point, I had attracted some attention, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of partying informants. Things started getting kind of loud.
“Are we talking about the guy who screws kids?” inquired a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with the American flag. While the others attempted to calm him down, he continued on for a while: “He screws kids, right? What else is there to know?” Another man assured me if Kazeck didn’t leave on his own accord, he’d nonetheless leave somehow.
For the moment, the cold weather has seemed to freeze a bit of the tension. But come spring, when kids play softball at a field adjacent to his house, things might get ugly, predicted a Monticello man.
Already, someone has vandalized his property by sticking signs in his lawn reading: “Sex offender lives here.” In response, Kazeck put up a few formidable-looking “No trespassing” signs just outside his trailer. Perhaps this is also when he began firing his weapon.
Also, the wife of Kazeck’s landlord, Sue Karjala, said her family has been harassed for renting to him. They have received a flurry of letters and phantom phone calls, presenting threats such as: “I sure hope your trailer doesn’t get trashed.”
Despite the fact that Megan’s Law has made steps toward defusing the walking time bombs known as sex offenders, it seems that it’s not completely successful. Megan’s Law was designed to keep people from getting hurt. But so far the ingredients in the Duelm stew –signs, phantom calls, name calling, guns and predictions of violence — make up a recipe for bloodshed. Duelm is an explosive area, and it’s not the first of its kind.
Tremont, Maine was one such place about a year ago. There, an offender named Thomas Varnum shot himself to death. Supposedly, he couldn’t bear the pressure that resulted from the notification meetings. In Santa Rosa, Calif., another offender hanged himself due to the inescapable weight of public disclosure. In Portland, Ore., six families pooled their resources to purchase the home of a sex offender’s mother to prevent him from living there. Before doing so, several in the neighborhood literally talked of shooting him for the safety of their children. Of course, these residents have good reason to wish for drastic measures. Statistics state between 20 and 30 percent of high-level sex offenders reoffend. But few would agree grisly death should be any offender’s payment.
This issue is inherently sprinkled with gunpowder. The key, however, is to formulate a law that sprinkles water on the gunpowder. Megan’s Law seems to hold a match to it, to some degree. On top of implicitly promoting vigilance, the law also creates a sort of not-in-my-backyard effect in which people all agree that while offenders should be able to somehow carry on with their lives, the offenders shouldn’t do so near their neighborhoods. This begs the obvious question: What do we do with them?
The American Civil Liberties Union in three states has recognized these inherent problems, and members have issued statements worth noting. Hilary Chiz, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia, criticized the law’s tendency to promote “not in my backyard” vigilance: “What happens when a former felon moves into your neighborhood? You join with your neighbors in some kind of vigilante group. You harass him. Then he leaves and moves into my neighborhood. What have we accomplished?” Michael Sternberg, the legal director of the Michigan ACLU, expressed similar concern. “It’s a matter of time before someone is killed … by vigilantism,” he said.
Somehow, a law should be passed that ensures the safety of children while minimizing the danger to adults. At this point in time, police have no authority to control where high-level offenders live. But the shackles of public scrutiny can be far more crippling than the shackles of the law, and often reap violence. This being the case, maybe sex offenders shouldn’t have so much publicity. Maybe they also shouldn’t have so much freedom.
When Kazeck moved to the Como area, the residents’ main concern was that he moved one block away from Tuttle School. This concern is legitimate. If sex offenders, in exchange for privacy, were prohibited by law from living anywhere near schools, risks on both ends of the spectrum would be minimized. In my mind, there’s not a just soul alive who wishes for either Kazeck to reoffend, or for people to dispose of him Old West-style. Therefore, the problem should be extinguished by coercing him out of the fire. But the short-sighted solution of simply chasing him out of town after town will only allow the problem to forever fester.
Rob Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday. Send comments to [email protected]