Child predators knew where to shop

When the sex-offender cluster in Davenport was first noticed, the state law that created it became a target.

In 2010, when Joe Engel, a Quad-City Times editor, spotted the new mapping system for the Iowa Sex Offender Registry, he did what most parents would do: He looked up his address. He didn’t see any sex offenders in his immediate neighborhood, but something else caught his eye.

He noticed that 12 sex offenders had supplied the same home address, which was a small trailer park in west Davenport.

West Kimberly Park, previously Brown’s Trailer Park and more recently Patriot Mobile Home Park, had fewer than 30 trailers. An additional 10 tiny apartments in an old on-site motel made up the entirety of the units. Taking into account a couple of roommate situations, a full 20 percent of those leasing space at the park were registered sex offenders.

We figured: This can’t have a good outcome.

The reaction by law enforcement and experts in child-sex offenses was similar. Many blamed Iowa’s residency restriction, which denies the state’s most dangerous offenders the right to live within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care center. The provision leaves few options, pushing pedophiles to the outskirts of town — to places such as the trailer park at 4847 W. Kimberly Road.

One of my first interviews for the story was with Jill Levenson, a then-associate professor of psychology and human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and an expert in sexual violence.

“Decreasing access to potential victims seems, intuitively, to be a reasonable strategy for preventing sex crimes,” Levenson said. “However, there is no evidence that housing restrictions achieve this goal.”

My story was published in October. By the next August, a parent had gone to police. He said his three children were sexually assaulted at the trailer park. Police investigated, and multiple arrests followed. When it was all over, eight people were charged. At least nine children were identified as victims.

The activities at the trailer park had been so bad, two of the men arrested are serving multiple life sentences. Melvin Lucier got six life terms in state court, and his former roommate, James Faler, got life plus 50 years in federal court.

Six women were convicted of child endangerment for permitting their children to spend time at the known sex offenders’ trailers.

It would be a comfort, for sure, to now blame the 2,000-foot rule. It would be convenient to point to a bad law and blame the well-meaning piece of legislation for a predictably horrible outcome. The law forced more than a dozen convicted child sex offenders into one small area, where children also lived. Worse, many of the children’s mothers had little regard for their safety.

But it ain’t that easy.

With or without the 2,000-foot rule and the cluster it produced, children would not have been spared.

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“These guys were going to find victims no matter what,” Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said of Lucier and Faler. “They know what they’re doing. They don’t just stumble upon them. They would have found victims, regardless. They find the mothers. That’s how it works.”

But all is not lost.

The pedophiles found the parents who were willing to look the other way, but the cops found the pedophiles. And they did so largely because of the Sex Offender Registry.

Faler was arrested in Kentucky when police there learned he was an Iowa sex offender who failed to register his out-of-state address. Authorities found Faler’s backpack, which contained child pornography that was traced back to the Davenport trailer park, where it was produced.

With the exception of one defendant whose case is stalled by a competency issue, all of those identified in the child-porn ring at the trailer park have been adjudicated. The future for their minor victims is a private matter, and we can only hope they now are getting the support and protection their mothers failed to provide.

But the system didn’t fail them. A state law produced an environment in that trailer park, where common sense would place high odds of predatory violence. But Walton is correct: The odds were unjustly high, regardless, because Lucier and Faler chose to live there.

The 2,000-foot rule has been scrutinized repeatedly, and the research indicates it is doing little or nothing to protect children. It certainly did not protect the nine children at the Davenport trailer park.

But it did not cause their suffering, either.