A SHADOW IN THE O.C.

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The land of God, money, and power is a hot zone in the war against the worst crimes of all

“I have given up on trying to convince people that I am a real person, with honest and good intentions, not some evil monster they should be afraid of. My intention is to harm society as much as I can, then die.”

–Blog post believed authored by child molester and suspected killer Joseph Edward Duncan III

It is the Summer of the Sex Offender.

As the mercury reaches skyward in a nauseating heat wave that has left dozens dead across the Southwest, the incessant shouting matches on talk radio and the dizzying blather from cable news have coalesced into a frenzied lynchin’ time pitch targeting the most vile subspecies of criminals in our midst: child molesters and kiddie pornographers.

From channel to channel, and talk station to talk station, the onslaught of outrage seems unending. Slotted into high rotation “news” cycles, the parade of victims, accused perpetrators, and the circumstances in each case begin to blur into one long montage of children’s faces split-screened with the sullen, fixed gazes of suspects in police mug shots. The immutable carping of Nancy Grace and her clones provide the voice-over.

If the medium is indeed the message, then the message is that a potential molester lurks behind the passing glance of every stranger, in every unexpected smile that’s offered on the street, in every odd-looking guy driving the speed limit in a school zone or sitting alone on a park bench. And in case readers missed the point, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin last weekend published a large map of its circulation area on its front page riddled with small blue circles. The headline spelled it out: “The blue dots are sex offenders.”

Those blue dots now seem to be splattering red all over the country. In Florida, paroled child molester John Evander Couey allegedly crept into the home of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford and abducted her. Couey has reportedly confessed to raping Jessica, wrapping her in garbage bags, and then burying her alive as she clutched her favorite stuffed animal.

In Idaho, convicted serial child-rapist Joseph Edward Duncan III, already on the lam for allegedly molesting a six-year-old boy, is accused of stalking and kidnapping eight-year-old Shasta Groene and her nine-year-old brother Dylan. Duncan is believed to have killed the children’s 13-year-old brother Slade, their mother, and her boyfriend with a hammer before taking Shasta and Dylan deep into the woods and repeatedly molesting both of them. Police believe Duncan eventually killed Dylan after videotaping himself tormenting the two children.

In a Santa Ana courtroom last week, Alejandro Avila was sentenced to die (sometime in the next 20-plus years) for his abduction, rape, and murder of five-year-old Samantha Runnion. Prosecutors introduced DNA evidence they believe was left by Samantha’s tears as she tried to fight off Avila.

It’s a rare consensus that unites Americans these days, but the emerging mood seems to be that it’s high time to grab a pitchfork, rope, and torch and head down to the local jail to go Medieval on these freaks. But whether executed or exiled to some remote Devil’s Island, the questions surrounding sex offenders in our society will not subside. Are pedophiles born or made? Even if some deserve treatment, what effective treatment is there? Are there more predators now than a generation ago? Is the Internet just a new tool being used or is it a contributing cause?

Some answers may be found in Orange County, where the battle against sexual predators who prey on kids has been burning hot for years.

Amid the churning flow of headlines, news flashes, and Amber Alerts, a small news story appeared inside the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago, reporting that 28 men had been snared in a federal child pornography investigation. Almost as an afterthought the story noted “including 21 from Orange County.”

The number caught my eye. In 2003 I spent most of the year on the legal beat in Orange County for a daily newspaper and had noticed the increasing number of local men getting busted by the feds on child pornography charges. One of the more jarring elements about the O.C. suspects caught in federal dragnets was the huge caches of kiddie porn some of them were accused of storing on banks of hard drives and CDs.

As cliché-driven as describing life behind the fabled “Orange Curtain” has become, there is a thread of truth connecting all those freshly scrubbed stereotypes. There is a reason it is home to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the Crystal Cathedral, the Magic Kingdom, and a whitewashed culture that is as far from the seedy warrens that we like to believe that sex offenders frequent as you can get.

Because of that, Orange County offers an intriguing window into what’s happening in America. Federal prosecutors have been nailing some big league purveyors of kiddie porn in the O.C. for quite some time.

Men like 61-year-old John Maurice Aldrich of Santa Ana Heights, who was arrested in 2003 for possessing upward of 100,000 images of child porn on two hard drives, 75 CD-ROMs, and “stacks of printed material,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Weeks after Aldrich was taken down, the feds arrested 10 more Orange County men in a child porn sweep, with the suspects ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, from college kids to the elderly.

It wasn’t long after those arrests that the case of Trenton Michael Veches made national news, as an Orange County Superior Court judge sentenced the former Newport Beach recreation director to life in prison after he videotaped himself sucking the toes of nearly two dozen young boys he was supposed to be supervising. Some of the molestations took place in public, including on a school bus during a group field trip.

Veches’s attorney John Patrick Dolan had attempted a novel – if desperate – defense of his client, essentially claiming that while Veches’s behavior was admittedly bizarre, it didn’t constitute sexual molestation. Orange County prosecutor Sheila Hanson introduced the child pornography Veches had on his computer and Dolan’s defense sank faster than the Titanic.

Before that year would come to a close, another locally prosecuted bust would send a collective shiver throughout the county. Newlyweds David Shouthy Hwang and Sheila Sikat were arrested after sheriff’s investigators, acting on a tip, discovered a “chest of horrors” in the couple’s upscale Rancho Santa Margarita home filled with videotapes allegedly featuring the couple molesting girls as young as eight months old. Almost two years later, the couple’s trial is scheduled to begin on August 22.

Learning from Orange County

But it is the ongoing federal busts that stand out in Orange County. Jennifer Corbet, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Los Angeles Courthouse of the Central District in California, noted that in years past Orange County had accounted for about a third of the indictments in the seven-county district, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties. But by 2003, the O.C.’s contribution of federally indicted sex offenders had jumped to about half of the district’s entire caseload of child exploitation cases. Last year that number in Orange County dropped to just three indictments. This year – so far – it spiked back up to 23 cases, compared to 17 cases-to-date for the other six counties combined.

Given the county’s three million people, 23 men indicted primarily for possessing child pornography on their computers may seem well within statistically acceptable boundaries. But consider that the other six counties combined have a population of more than 15 million people, yet have often fewer indictments.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Lee, who handles federal prosecution of child exploitation cases in Orange County, said cases are not only back up in the county, but the crimes themselves are appearing more grim. “One thing I have noticed, at least anecdotally, is that the images these guys are dealing in are getting worse, if that’s possible,” Lee said. “We are seeing more pictures of kids in bondage. The children are getting younger. Adults are depicted having sex with toddlers and sometimes even infants.”

Lee said that these hellish images are a departure from the kiddie porn generated during the 1970s, much of it imported from Europe, which was disturbing but generally missing a patently violent edge. The victims in those images were often shown in sexual situations alone, with other children, or posed with adults.

“There was a brief moment in the 1970s in a few European countries where essentially all pornography laws were dropped. Nothing was illegal,” Lee said. “As a result, a lot of the child porn that came into this country was produced during that time and we still find some of it today in their collections.”

It’s the newer material that can stun even hardened investigators. One of the cases that Lee recently prosecuted involved images of a young girl posed naked on a bed with a hunting knife positioned between her legs. Written on her body in what appeared to be red candle wax were the words “cut me.”

Predators and collectors of child pornography have used every technological development that has advanced the cyber world to their advantage, Lee said. “It has definitely facilitated their desire to see more. The vast majority of the cases we prosecute have an Internet component.”

Starting early on with e-mail, circles of pedophiles sending and receiving child porn advanced to bulletin boards, newsgroups, websites, file servers, and peer-to-peer Napster-like technology. “Instead of sharing music files, they share child pornography,” said Lee. And the relative ease in which kiddie porn collectors now access the material may also fuel their hunger for it. “We get some of these guys telling us that they spend between eight to 12 hours a day collecting it. That’s basically what they do and that can help explain the size of some of these collections.”

It may also help explain why the feds have kept so busy in Orange County, since these men require a certain level of computer savvy, free time, and some financial depth. The O.C. office has also simply made prosecutions of child porn a priority, said Lee.

Psychologist Wesley Maram speculates that as the culture itself has coarsened over time and become more desensitized to violence, purveyors of child porn desire progressively harder and more vicious images. The Internet has changed everything.

A former probation agent who has been dealing with sex offenders since the 1970s, Maram now operates a clinic in Orange County known as Sex Offender Solutions. The clinic’s program provides that most unpopular word right now when talking about child molesters: treatment.

The way Maram sees it, society has little choice – once the high-octane rhetoric subsides – but to develop treatment programs. “The community’s perception is that treatment is somehow about curing the individual,” Maram said. “It’s not. Treatment is about giving him strategies to control his behavior and make sure he doesn’t re-offend.”

In an effort to develop those strategies with the more than 100 clients his clinic treats – most of them post-conviction sex offenders – Maram and his staff apply an array of technology and techniques. One of the first steps is to tear away an offender’s deniability, which Maram said offenders often still display when starting treatment. “Most of them are dishonest about it at first,” he said. “Because they know acknowledging what they like is humiliating and makes them punishable deviants. So the instinctive impulse is to deny it.”

That denial is shattered, Maram said, by a battery of tests, including repeat polygraph exams and a penile plethysmograph, which Maram dubs the “Peter Meter,” which literally registers a man’s response to a series of audio stories describing sex acts with adults, adolescents, and children. Sometimes visuals are used as well. Even at this stage some sex offenders still try to hide their desires, but Maram said it’s futile. “You can’t control blood flow.”

Once a clearer picture has emerged of the offender, treatment at the clinic involves teaching the men strategies to keep from offending again. “We teach them that ‘stinking thinking’ leads to ‘stinking behavior,’” he said. “A person’s thought process causes feelings that can lead to behaviors, so the client is trained to look at alternative thinking patterns that will address negative feelings and behaviors.”

Stripped down to plain English, Maram said the basic strategy actually echoes what society is demanding: “Stay away from kids. Stay away from drugs and alcohol and report to your therapist. We teach them coping strategies of escape and avoidance when they are confronted by a high risk situation.”

Staying off the Internet may also be a required strategy, since Maram says the information highway has had an association – but is not a direct cause – to the ´´ problem. “Look, I have interviewed hundreds of these men, and that seems to be the trend,” Maram said. “They meander through the warehouse of the Internet looking for fulfillment, as it has now replaced a relationship. So they search and search trying to fill that existential void, hoping from one mouse-click to the next they will find nirvana.”

Maram said he understands society’s rage against sex offenders – so much so that he asked that the location of his clinic not be identified. But as volatile as the suggestion that society must consider some form of treatment for sex offenders is right now, Maram said he doesn’t see any other feasible alternative.

Veteran defense attorney Andrew Lloyd, who has long specialized in representing sex offenders, argues the panic-pitch gripping the public now has clouded the issue. “The hysteria surrounding sex offenders is increasing almost by the day,” observed Lloyd. “We are registering more sex offenders now than at any other time in the 55 years of registration law.”

Lloyd believes that the hyper-charged climate in some respects is creating more risk, particularly in families where the molestation has gone undetected or unreported, or among men who have started consuming child pornography.

“Sex offenders are defined by guys like Richard Allen Davis [who kidnapped and killed Polly Klaas], yet the bulk of the molesters are ordinary folk who are terribly ashamed of what they have done,” Lloyd said. “It makes it all the more difficult for them to get treatment, especially on their own, in this kind of climate.”

Aiming the Sledgehammer

Federal prosecutions are an important barometer, as they are usually reserved for more heinous cases in California. State law makes possession of child pornography a misdemeanor in most instances, but under federal statutes it is a felony in every case. Federal sentencing guidelines are also much harsher, with first time offenders facing years in the penitentiary.

While Lee said his office has no “bright lines” that serve as thresholds for federal prosecution, the fact is the feds do not target small-fry offenders, but rather often work closely with county prosecutors to make sure big league predators get the hammer. But Lloyd says federal prosecutors often wield that hammer needlessly against men who would better serve society in treatment than in prison. He points to one of his new cases, a 71-year-old man arrested for possession of child pornography during the latest federal sweep.

“Here’s some senior citizen who is retired, caring for his sick wife who has Hodgkins disease, he’s a little depressed about life and he gets on the Internet and starts looking at porn,” Lloyd said. “He started off just perusing regular legal porn, but then drifted into child porn. This guy has never been arrested in his life, has never touched a child, has never been any sort of predator, and yet he’s facing a minimum of more than six years in a federal prison for just looking at these pictures. That’s not a hammer, that’s a sledgehammer.”

But these weren’t just a few scattered images found on his hard drive. “Well, I think he had less than 2,000 but more than 1,500 images,” Lloyd acknowledged. “He was addicted to it, there’s no doubt about it. But he’s a classic case of a guy who needs treatment, not hard prison time.”

Maram agrees the images we are bombarded with don’t offer an accurate portrayal of the average sex offender. “Society fears stranger abductions the most,” Maram said, thus it peppers up a news cycle. “But the fact is that those cases account for less than 10 percent of molestations and abuse.”

And what are we doing about the other 90 percent? Maram said that most sex offenders are family members, friends, and others who do not fit the high-risk predator profile. It’s that reality that complicates the issue.

“Look, Australia is full and Alcatraz is closed,” Maram said. “Some of these guys should be locked up and never allowed out, no doubt about it, but the fact is that most of them are going to get out, and the question is what are we going to do with them then?”

Registration itself is looking more and more like a bust to an angry public, especially in neighborhoods where there are registered sex offenders clustered on every other block. And veteran sex crime prosecutors like Sheila Hanson, who put away Veches, and her supervisor Rosanne Froeberg, the Senior Assistant District Attorney for sex crimes in Orange County, have long cast a wary eye at the concept of “release and treat.”

“While I would concede that there are some sex offenders who are less dangerous than others, these are all sex offenders who are attracted to children,” remarked Hanson following the Veches trial. “They are all dangerous and as such they all pose a threat to society.”

Noting that her office, like federal prosecutor Lee’s in Orange County, has seen a disturbing increase in the “severity” of the cases they are prosecuting, Froeberg said there are no good options when releasing sex offenders back into a community.

“Treatment is not a bad thing per se, but the stats are pretty grim about these guys getting out and not re-offending,” Froeberg said. “Yet even with treatment, to think that we can sleep at night believing our children are safe with previously convicted pedophiles in the community is precarious at best.”

With talk radio and cable TV giving a hyper-amplified voice to the people’s righteous anger, this summer is indeed going to be long and hot. Let’s hope it’s not endless.

This article was first published as a cover story in Los Angeles City Beat.