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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 15 2012

‘These are the boogeymen’

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. - Jon Lawrence cradles his 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, as he surveys the 36 photographs in a glass case at the entrance to the Spirit Lake Recreation Center, a gathering place and playground for children of the reservation.

The 36 men who look back at Lawrence, who look back at the children as they troop in to play basketball or computer games, are men of the tribe, residents of the reservation. They range in age from 23 to 76, and each has been convicted of a crime, a particularly offensive crime – including sexual abuse of a minor, aggravated incest, rape – and required to register as a sex offender.

“Every one of these guys complained that their rights were being violated by having their pictures here,” said Lawrence, who works at the center. “Some of them used to come here.”

That was strange, he said, as Sophia squirmed in his arms and laughed, the rascally innocent laugh of a 2-year-old.

“Some parents just drop their kids off here, and they’re here alone,” he said.

Kids at risk

The health, security and safety of children are at the heart of the ongoing examination of Spirit Lake’s child protection system and social services. After assessing the system for several weeks, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs on Friday said it would take over from the tribe.

Questions have been raised about the placing of children in foster care homes where background checks and follow-up home visits weren’t done or weren’t properly documented. Some tribal members and others, including people whose jobs mandate that they report such things, have alleged that children have been placed in homes where convicted sex offenders live. The FBI, BIA and other authorities may have investigated such situations, but there have been no announced findings or arrests.

But Spirit Lake is hardly alone in having residents with histories of crimes against children. Convicted sex offenders whose convictions require registration and public notification live in every corner of the state.

The North Dakota attorney general’s office maintains a searchable website with a 223-page list of sex offenders, their photos and basic information: last-known address, crimes and risk level, from low to high.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said that Spirit Lake “under federal law has no obligation to tell us about the registration of offenders there, and they have chosen not to.”

Title XX of the tribe’s Law and Order Code was adopted in April 2010 and closely follows the federal registration and notification act, and Spirit Lake maintains its own sex offender registry on the tribe’s website.

High-risk offenders

A high-risk offender is one whom authorities believe is most likely to reoffend.

The best-known example regionally is Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., convicted just months after his release from prison of the 2003 rape and killing of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin. He was sentenced to die and is in a federal prison pending the last of his appeals. The high-profile case led to major changes in how North Dakota and Minnesota handle sex offenders, and the national sex offender website is named in remembrance of Sjodin.

Among the sex offenders living on the Spirit Lake Reservation and deemed high-risk: Quentin Yankton, 62, of St. Michael, N.D., Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton’s brother.

There used to be a display case, similar to the one at the Fort Totten Recreation Center, at the tribal headquarters building, known as the Blue Building. It’s a high-traffic place, where tribal members may stop daily for mail, visit with friends or consult with tribal officials.

But the sex offender display was removed early this summer at the direction of Chairman Yankton, who denies accusations that he was acting to protect some of the 36 offenders, including his brother and at least one other relative.

“We’re all related here,” Yankton said with some exasperation when asked about the missing photos.

“Here is where they were,” he said, striding to a case in the Blue Building’s main corridor. Only glued stubs of photographs remained.

Yankton said he ordered the removal of sex offenders’ photos and criminal records because he wants to use that central display space “for more positive things” about tribal activities and achievements.

The grim lineup of offender photos “didn’t belong here,” he said. “And they’re still up at the Rec Center.”

Creepy or proper?

There, the photo of Quentin Yankton – convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl in 1992 and a similar conviction in 1976 – hangs with the rest. His face is on the tribe’s website, too, and makes the rounds in other ways. The Spirit Lake Resort and Casino published the sex offenders’ pictures and crime details in a recent newsletter, general manager Paul Matheny said.

Some think it creepy, the lineup of convicted sex offenders – many of whom abused children – posted where children stream in to relax or play after school.

To others, it’s right and proper.

“This is a positive thing,” a woman said as she passed by the display on a recent afternoon. She was reluctant to give her name but not her opinion.

“It shows our kids who to look for,” she said. “To me, these are the boogeymen.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald


On the Web

• North Dakota sex offenders: www.sexoffender.nd.gov.

• Minnesota sex offenders: www.doc.state.mn.us/search/default.htm.

• Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website: www.nsopw.gov.

• Spirit Lake sex offender registry: spiritlake.nsopw.gov.