In 1995, a convicted child molester was arrested for the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl in a New Jersey suburb. The offender lived right across the street. However, the Police Department was prohibited from disclosing his presence.
The outcry that resulted led to a federal law, enacted in memory of Megan Kanka. "Megan's Law" permits the release of information to the public.
Until recently, Niagara County residents looking to find out if a convicted sex offender lives near them had to look on the New York State registry, a list that includes only those offenders most likely to commit more crimes.
That has changed with the introduction of two Web sites that list a broader range of sex offenders in most county communities.
"There is no other county in the state that does half as much as we do," said Niagara County Sheriff's Investigator Leonard Guagliano, who manages the county's online registry and coordinates sex offender registration for his department.
Niagara County Sheriff Thomas Beilein unveiled a new registry last summer that lists not only Level 3 offenders -- deemed the most likely to re-offend -- but also Level 2 offenders on the county Web site at www.ncsd.com.
Sex offenders who live in the cities of Lockport and Niagara Falls are not part of the county list. However, Lockport set up its own list last week, at elockport.com/city_police.
Lockport also lists both Level 2 and Level 3 offenders in the City of Lockport. The list contains 19 offenders.
The City of North Tonawanda is included on the county registry, which currently lists 45 Level 2 and Level 3 offenders. The Sheriff's Department also lets the public sign up to be notified by e-mail when a sex offender moves into their area.
>Falls numbers high
A total of 295 registered sex offenders live in Niagara County. A little over one-third are Level 1 offenders, who are considered the least likely to reoffend.
In Niagara Falls, sex offender numbers are much higher than in either Lockport or other parts of Niagara County. There are a total of 200 sex offenders in the Falls, approximately 60 of whom are Level 3 offenders.
"If you were to put a red dot where every sex offender was located, Niagara Falls would be one big red blob," Guagliano said. He said the Sheriff's Department is anxious to include the City of Niagara Falls on its site.
Niagara Falls police Detective Patricia McCune said the city would like to have all its sex offenders on the county Web site sometime this year, but it still needs the software.
"This is a very big problem, but we have a good grasp on the offenders, especially the ones involving children," McCune said. "We know where every Level 3 resides, and the Level 3s abide by the rules because they are afraid of going back to jail. And we will arrest them."
She cautioned that there is a misconception that everyone on the list abuses children.
"They are not all pedophiles," McCune said. "Some offenders on the list involve adult rape, and some are consensual sex with age differences, where one is under 17."
In New York State, 22,486 registered sex offenders are divided into three groups. Only Level 3 offenders are on a statewide list available on the Internet. Level 1 offenders are monitored by police, but their information may not be listed on a Web site or given out to the public.
More than 5,000 Level 3 offenders are listed on the state Web site.
"This is not a crime of opportunity or emotion," Guagliano said of a typical sex offender. "This is hard-wired into people."
However, he noted that people should never be lulled into a sense of security, because law enforcement is not allowed to notify neighbors of a Level 1 offender and often has little control of a convicted offender's activities when the offender is off probation.
>Tougher laws passed
State laws have gotten tougher. Recently, sex offender registries, at their 10-year anniversaries in January, faced the real possibility of hundreds of Level 1 and Level 2 offenders being dropped from the list in Niagara County and thousands from across the state. These offenders would no longer have been tracked by police.
Tougher laws passed last month and signed by Gov. George E. Pataki lengthened the amount of time sex offenders remain on the registry, just days before the 10-year limit expired. Now the 2006 law requires Level 1 offenders to remain on the registry for 20 years. Both Level 2 and Level 3 offenders remain on the registry for life, but Level 2 offenders can petition to be removed in 30 years.
Now, callers to the state registry can obtain information about whether a Level 1 offender is on the list but must provide one of four identifiers of the person in question: a driver's license number, Social Security number, date of birth or exact address. The caller may only find out if the person is on the list but no other information.
For Level 2 and Level 3 offenders, more information about the conviction and the type of victim targeted will be disclosed and will be available from local law enforcement. Exact address information is available for Level 3 offenders, while Level 2 offenders (in local lists) are identified only by the ZIP code where they live. All include photos.
Local law enforcement agencies also are allowed to notify the community whenever a sex offender moves into their jurisdiction.
Most local police send a letter to schools, but the Sheriff's Department also has deputies knock on doors when a new sex offender moves into a neighborhood. Guagliano said county and state probation vigilance has paid off, such as a recent unannounced visit that found pornography on a sex offender's computer.
City police forces are responsible for their own notification, but most do not have the resources to go door to door.
Along with the new Web registry, city leaders in Lockport are also considering a law that would bar any registered sex offender from living within a quarter-mile of a school, park or other spot where children congregate. The city, which is only three miles wide from north to south and east to west, contains 10 public schools, 27 parks and several day care centers and nursery schools. The result of the law could mean that convicted sex offenders may be totally restricted from living in the city.
Cities in other states that passed or proposed similar bans saw sex offenders become clustered in certain areas of a city -- or in some cases pushed into rural areas.
City Corporation Counsel John Ottaviano said last week that it was not the purpose of the legislation to push all the sex offenders into the Town of Lockport but added, "If that's the end result, so be it."
A hearing on the proposed law in Lockport will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
>Children main concern
The biggest concerns from parents remain how sex offenders target children.
Investigator Guagliano recently spoke to a group of concerned parents and told them not to be afraid to call if they have a concern.
"It's my job to manage these people," he said. "Don't think you are calling and bothering us. That's part of our job. If you feel like someone is suspicious, then call us. Better safe than sorry. You'd be shocked at the sheer number of Level 1 offenders."
He called block clubs handy for watching people but said offenders find ways to "weasel themselves into a situation, and the next thing you know they are watching your kids."
He said once offenders are off probation, there are no laws that stop them from doing things like handing out candy on Halloween.
Laura A. Ahearn is a certified children's social worker, founder of New York Parents for Megan's Law and the author of a program for parents on how to educate their children to be aware of sexual abuse.
"It's a mistake to focus on only the registry," Ahearn said. "The registries only list those who are caught and convicted. [Sex offenders] chip away at boundaries. Ninety percent of abuse comes from a person who you have a trusting relationship with."
She said parents should talk to their children but not give them too much information.
"Tell younger children that they have the power to say no to touching in their private areas," Ahearn said. "They are the boss. For fourth-graders, let them know about yucky feelings or when something doesn't feel right.
"It's not about stranger danger," she added. "We all believe it is some scary person in the park, but in reality [sex offenders] smile and look like you and I. Parents can teach children to trust everyone, but within the roles they have. A teacher should not be taking your child out to dinner. That's a blurry boundary. It's a red flag if someone wants to spend more time with your child than you do."
>Many juvenile males
Ahearn said 97 percent of sex offenders are male. Many start molesting as young as 14.
"Fifty percent of all molestations and 20 percent of all rapes are perpetrated by juvenile males," Ahearn said.
Juveniles are not part of the registry system, since most are not tried as adults.
Is there more to be done?
There are some new restrictions, such as sex offenders not being allowed to operate ice cream trucks or sell ice cream. They are also not allowed to work at day camps.
There are also new restrictions about living near schools for Level 3 offenders, but the law does not force anyone to move if they have already been living there. There is also an expansion of the DNA database, which requires mandatory participation.
Pataki has proposed expanding the information available on the Internet to include all levels of sex offenders to "ensure that the public receives the necessary information from law enforcement about all sex offenders in their community."
Under the governor's proposal, the amount of information about Level 1 offenders would still be limited but would include a photo and a ZIP code address. Level 2 offenders would include more information about the type of crime and types of victims targeted.
Guagliano agrees with the governor's plan.
"New York State law is frustrating because it is so restrictive," he said. "No other states have levels. My only hope is that someday everyone will be on the list and will be on forever. It's only going to happen with a lot of uproar from the community."
"The biggest thing is dissemination of information," he said. "The whole idea is to allow the community to know who lives next door."
>To learn more
Niagara County residents can go to the following places for free information on sexual offenders:
www.ncsd.com -- Go to the Niagara County Sheriff Department Web site, and click on sex registry. Also includes a link to the state sex offender Web site.
www.elockport.com -- Go to the City and Town of Lockport Web site, click on "links" at the top of the page, click on Lockport City Police and then click on the link to sex offenders.
www.criminaljustice.state.ny.us -- The New York State Web site lists Level 3 offenders throughout the state.
State Sex Offender Registry Information Line -- (800) 262-3257 for inquiries about an individual.
Parents For Megan's Law -- www.parentsformeganslaw.com, or call for free information at the agency's hotline, (888) ASK-PFML.
Sex offenders tend to use one or more of the following tricks to prey on children, says Laura Ahearn, author of the "Apple of My Eye" Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention Program and founder of the group Parent's for Megan's Law.
Assistance lure: Offenders may ask a child for help with directions, carrying packages or an emergency, or offer to teach a sport or musical instrument for free. They also may offer to help a family with baby-sitting or driving activities, or to take children on a trip. Ahearn says to watch for those who are more interested in your child than you.
Touching: Children are often unaware that supposed accidental touching may be intentional.
Desensitizers: Offenders may continually talk to children about sex or use pornography to demonstrate sexual acts or leave sexual material where children may see it.
Drugs and alcohol: These can be used to incapacitate a child, making him or her highly vulnerable to abuse.
Fame and jobs: Promises are made to make the child a movie star or give him or her a high-paying job if they go to a meeting or interview in a private setting.
Friendship: Older children may bribe another child by saying that they will lose friendship if he or she won't participate in a sexual act.
Games: Body contact games are devised that go too far.
Hero who gives special privileges: Children are often impressed with those in a position of authority like a coach, teacher or older relative. They may endure abuse to maintain a relationship.
"I know you:" Do not write your child's name on the outside of any of their clothing or items they use outside the home, such as umbrellas or back packs. This gives the offender an opportunity to make your child feel as though they know them.
Internet: Offenders will try to get specific information from your child without directly asking for it. They may ask if your child plays on sports teams, for example, which would eventually lead to a discussion of where your child's team plays. Ultimately, they want to try to set up a meeting. Predators on the Internet may also transmit pornography to children.
Lost pet: Similar to the assistance lure, the offender may ask a child to help find a lost dog. The offender may carry props, such as a photo of a dog and a leash.
Threats: Once the abuse has taken place, an offender may threaten to expose the child either to their parents or friends. The offender may threaten the abused child into recruiting other children.