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Emily Welker, Published June 01 2013

Sex offenders clustered in Fargo’s core

FARGO - Heidi Laho was packing last week to move her five small children, her husband, and herself – carrying their sixth – from their current house to a new one.

The new house is pretty near their old one, still in the Madison neighborhood, north of Main Avenue and west of University Drive in Fargo. But she’s not staying because they like it there.

Laho moved to that area of Fargo about three years ago out of economic necessity, needing affordable housing while raising a large family. As her mom helped her pack, they kept an eye on the kids playing outside.

“Hopefully, sooner or later we’ll be able to move out of this neighborhood,” she said.

One of the reasons Laho wished she was packing to move somewhere else is the 16 registered sex offenders who live in the Madison neighborhood.

Seventeen registered sex offenders live in the neighborhood the city defines as downtown, and 10 are in the Jefferson neighborhood, which stretches from Main Avenue to 13th Avenue South from University Drive to 25th Street. Another 10 sex offenders live within one or two blocks of those three neighborhoods.

That means that in Fargo, home to most of the metro area’s sex offenders, all but 10 of the 63 offenders whose addresses police publicly disclose are clustered in the city’s core – which includes some of Fargo’s poorest neighborhoods. About 75 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch at the elementary schools that give Madison and Jefferson neighborhoods their names.

That sort of concentration can have upsides, a local probation official says, but a researcher who studies sex offenders warns that the clustering in the lowest-income and least cohesive neighborhoods of a city brings risks.

“We are immersing them in communities with greater amounts of deviant influences – drugs, alcohol, prostitution, poor economics,” said Ohio State University’s Richard Tewksbury, who studies justice administration and sex offenders.

Cluster concerns

While research shows sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than those who have committed other types of crimes, Tewksbury said the clustering ensures more offenders live in areas of a community that are less organized in key ways, setting them up to fail.

Though it’s “almost desirable to disappear” due to the intense stigma of a conviction for a sexual crime, Tewksbury said the concentration in poorer neighborhoods isolates sex offenders, who are better able to re-enter society when they have community support.

For those concerned to be living near sex offenders, children are often less supervised in poorer neighborhoods, Tewksbury said.

Laho has a rule that her children aren’t allowed to go anywhere without her.

“There’s a few people – (but) I just don’t trust anyone,” she said.

Also, adults in those areas of communities are less likely to access registry information and know where offenders are living, Tewksbury said.

Take for instance Amber Kanowske, who was out for a walk in the Madison neighborhood last week with her chatty 3-year-old son, D’Angelo Tucker.

Kanowske moved to the area from Milwaukee last month, primarily for the welfare of the children, since there were shootings back home.

“It seemed nice to me, until you told me about all these scary people living here,” she told a reporter.

Kanowske’s two youngest children rarely leave her side, but her 8-year-old niece has the run of the neighborhood.

“I’m going to tell her to watch her step – she can’t go nowhere,” she said.

The new neighbors

Mary Purcell had lived in an apartment house at 1122 2nd Ave. S. for several years before the building changed hands and the first police fliers started appearing under her door.

The complex, which she no longer lives in, has seven sex offenders living in it as of last week, the most in any one building in Fargo-Moorhead, based on the addresses of moderate- and high-risk offenders police publicly disclose in North Dakota and the list of high-risk offender disclosed in Minnesota.

“When you would look at it, it (the address) would be the apartment upstairs,” Purcell said of the police notifications she began to receive.

As the fliers began to stack up, the new landlord didn’t contact her about the change in policy, but a new resident did.

Purcell said he slipped a note under her door that was “extremely sexually graphic – a sexual fantasy. He’d obviously seen me around and … there was no self-editing.”

The note invited her to meet the author in the shared bathroom for tenants on the floor above Mary in order to act out one of the man’s fantasies.

There were other episodes involving her new neighbors that Purcell found equally disturbing, including times when she saw some of them watching her through a crack in her front door.

Purcell said there were also signs that men living above her were drinking, though alcohol can often be prohibited as part of a sex offender’s probation.

She finally called her landlord.

“I asked him what he was going to do to make me feel safe – and he suggested we throw a barbecue to get to know each other.”

Purcell moved out about six to eight months later.

Finding a place

The building’s owner, Lee Allen, said he rents to sex offenders because of his Christian beliefs, a faith in second chances.

“People have called me every name in the book – it’s not easy,” Allen said. “There’s less teaching and reporting done on murderers than sex offenders. Some can’t be rehabilitated and deserve to be locked up. Some don’t.”

Allen said he has rejected some sex offenders after checking with the offender’s parole or probation officer and with the offender’s family members.

In some cases, it was because the crime involved child molestation. In others, it was due to alcohol.

“I have grandchildren, for crying out loud,” he said.

Mark Voigtschild, the Fargo police detective who conducts checks to ensure sex offenders are living where they say they are, often passes along Allen’s phone number. He refers offenders to landlords who are willing to rent to them, but there are not many. He said he hears at least once a month from an offender who has lost his housing.

“I’ve provided them my cellphone number, my business card – if they get kicked out after hours,” Voigtschild said. “The one thing we don’t want is that they become homeless.”

Benefits seen

That lack of housing options is why offenders are so concentrated in the city’s core neighborhoods, said Barb Breiland of the North Dakota Department of Correction.

However, she said, the higher density of sex offenders near Fargo’s geographic center does have benefits.

Breiland, the sex offender program manager for Fargo’s parole and probation office, said corrections officials believe in a “containment model” for sex offender housing, noting that she and a group called the Christian Sports Commission tried to establish a group home in Fargo in 2010 that could have housed sex offenders.

“I think when we’re talking about sex offenders in the same home, the sex offender will not want to see their fellow re-offending – it’s a negative light on them. They will report inappropriate behavior to officers,” she said.

Breiland said sex offenders living close together near downtown makes it easier for Voigtschild to do checks and puts offenders closer to parole and probation officials. She said public transportation is easily accessible, too.

She also echoed Tewksbury’s point that sex offenders, contrary to public perception, actually have relatively low rates of recidivism. A 2007 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for instance, found that three years after their release, only 6 percent had been convicted again for a sexual crime and 3 percent were again behind bars for such an offense.

Usually, Breiland said, when a sex offender runs afoul of the law, it’s for a violation of the terms of their probation that’s unrelated to sex offenses.

Quiet life disrupted

That’s what happened to George Nicolai, who was convicted of a misdemeanor in June 2000 in Colorado for window peeping.

He tried to keep his conviction a secret for a dozen years. He didn’t register as an offender and lived a quiet life at the Lamplighter Apartments at 2540 14th St. S., working at a gas station a few blocks away.

Then it all changed.

“Somehow, someone found out,” Nicolai said.

It cost him 90 days in jail, his job and his apartment.

Nicolai said he didn’t register his address partly because he’d just put it off and meant to get around to it. But he also admitted he was hoping to leave his past behind him.

Now there are reminders of it throughout his building. The only place he could find to live is in the same apartment house where Purcell once lived.

He’s one of the seven sex offenders living there. All of the tenants on his floor share a common bathroom.

Nicolai looked around his cramped and airless efficiency apartment on a recent afternoon.

“I have no complaints about the neighborhood or the noise,” he said, “but I like to stick to myself – I’m not really sociable, outside of church.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541