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Predators in our midst When violent sex offenders are released from prison, communities must decide how to protect themselves

A sign at a beach in the Wyoming County village of Perry says, "No RVs, No Trailers, No Vehicles Over 6,000 Pounds." Someone added a postscript in magic marker: "No Pedophiles."

One man lived in a tent on a vacant lot in Lovejoy for two days, until neighbors learned he was a registered sex offender who had a knife in the tent.

"They were saying, 'Get him the hell out of here,' " Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana said. "They were concerned for their children."

And elected officials from Amherst and North Tonawanda to Elma have added their voices to the efforts to crack down on convicted sex offenders.

Wherever you turn, locally or across the nation, a bull's-eye has been drawn on convicted sex offenders, especially those considered most likely to repeat their crimes.

There are plenty of these guys walking the streets here.

A study of New York's Sex Offender Registry shows 528 registered Level 3 sex offenders in Western New York, although more than a quarter of them are back in jail. Level 3 offenders, labeled "sexually violent predators," are considered most likely to repeat their crimes.

Of the 209 Level 3 offenders living outside jail in Erie County, 85 percent are in Buffalo. The state registry shows a dozen men living in a Seneca Street boarding house, another 11 in a mid-sized downtown hotel and five more in a homeless shelter.

As the public becomes more vocal about restricting their freedom, these offenders feel the pressure.

"I think people need to know what we're mandated to do," one 38-year-old Level 3 offender said recently. "We go to (counseling) programs. We go to see a psychiatrist. We have cameras across the street watching us. We are drug tested. And parole is here all the time.

"Just give us a chance," he added. "Let us prove that the program does work."

But with national news networks jumping all over child abduction cases, the climate has become ripe for restrictive measures against sex offenders, especially those considered almost impossible to rehabilitate.

That climate turned violent in Bellingham, Wash., where a man confessed to killing two convicted child rapists, claiming he picked his victims, both Level 3 offenders, from a sheriff's Web site.

> Concerns aired

Apart from that kind of vigilante action, no one can deny that more people are demanding added restrictions against convicted sex offenders.

"The issue definitely is on the front burner right now," said Lt. David F. Mann Jr., commander of the Buffalo Sex Offense Squad. "I think that's a good thing. When citizens start demanding action, that can lead to greater resources and legislation to address the problem."

Yet Mann is concerned. He noted that Erie County's budget problems have led to cuts in prosecutors, police and probation officers, as well as in the agencies that provide mandated treatment for sex offenders.

"It's going to be up to our citizens to decide what our priorities are," he said. "If it's clear that it's a community priority to address the issue of sex offenders, then we'll get the resources we need to do it properly."

Public officials are demanding more action.

Amherst Town Board Member Shelly Schratz has started what she hopes will be a national grass-roots effort called Protect Our Children.

Local municipal boards, including North Tonawanda and Elma, have gone on record to support tougher state laws against convicted sex offenders.

And pressure is mounting on the Assembly to pass some tougher bills that already have passed the State Senate.

National statistics indicate that the number of sexual assaults against children has gone down, even dramatically, in the last 10 years, although some professionals question those figures.

So why is there such a clamoring now for tougher action against these ex-offenders?

One answer is the national rage over the arrests of registered sex offenders following the deaths of three girls in Florida and Idaho -- two of them 9 years old, the other 13.

> Crime inflames passion

"People are coming down hard on Level 2 and Level 3 offenders, because it affects children," North Tonawanda City Council President Brett M. Sommer said. "It's such a visceral reaction to protect your children. And I think the idea of your child being sexually abused is so repugnant."

Or, as Kenneth J. Duszynski, who counsels adults at Mid-Erie Counseling and Treatment Services, said, "It's a crime that inflames passion."

Roy Schneggenburger of Lancaster, grandfather of 11, goes to his daughter's summer home near Perry, in Wyoming County. He recently approached the Village Board about taking some action after learning that the village, with 3,945 residents, has five Level 3 offenders.

"These are very clever people, and the police just can't be there constantly," he said. "They just don't have the time or manpower."

Schneggenburger suggested that Level 3 offenders be placed in isolated cells, with no chance of parole. That may sound extreme, but a lot of people apparently agree with him.

Professionals, though, are concerned about all the attention going just to those sex offenders who have been caught.

"The ones that frighten us are the ones who are actively offending and hiding behind the secrecy of normalcy," said Duszynski, an adult-treatment team leader. "They're hiding out as teachers, youth-camp directors and baby sitters. You have to have healthy suspicions about anyone with unfettered access to your children."

Edward Suk, New York executive director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, applauds the increasing public awareness. He's concerned, though, about the false sense of security when a person finds there are no Level 3 offenders in the neighborhood.

"We need to focus on an agenda to educate our kids better about the risks and about how to stay safe in their neighborhoods, their schools and their families," Suk said.

But for now the focus is on those convicted sex offenders, especially the Level 3 offenders whose faces are just a mouse click away on the state's Sex Offender Registry.

> 'Lesser of two evils'

A check of that registry shows that 178 of the 209 Level 3 offenders living in Erie County are in Buffalo.

Some possible explanations: Sex offenders may feel it's easier to be anonymous in the bigger city; they may live there because it's closer to their treatment programs; or it may be where the criminal justice system releases them.

There has been some neighborhood opposition to the concentration of the dozen Level 3 offenders in the Seneca Street boarding house.

"It's a choice of the lesser of two evils," Mann said. "Do you want the guys in one place, where they can be more efficiently monitored? Or do you want them dispersed to 12 different residential streets?"

Duszynski, who counsels offenders, believes it makes sense to have them together, under the watchful eye of authorities.

"The science of what we know about sex offenders is that they're less likely to reoffend when they know they're under human supervision," he said.

The men in the Seneca Street boarding house know they're being watched closely.

"Now I see how my victims feel, how they feel violated," a 31-year-old man said on the side porch there. "I have to live with the shame and hurt I put them through.

"If I could take it back, I would."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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