Did Flyer on Sex Offender's Release Invite Vigilantism?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph Gallardo is in hiding, burned out of his Washington house the morning of his release from prison on July 12 and hounded from an angry New Mexico town a week later.

He is a convicted child rapist. His case is focusing new attention on how authorities handle the release of sex offenders and whether public notifications may give rise to vigilantism.

THE CASE: Gallardo, 35, of Lynnwood in suburban Snohomish County north of Seattle, served less than three years of a four-year sentence for the statutory rape of a 10-year-old girl. Five days before his release, the county sheriff posted a flyer, with mug shots, in Gallardo's intended neighborhood, calling him "an extremely dangerous untreated sex offender with a very high probability for re-offense." It went on to list some of his "deviant sexual fantasies" and said that small girls were usually the focus of his violent sexual desires.

The day before his release, about 300 alarmed residents gathered at a hastily planned rally. Within a few hours, Gallardo's house was burned down.

Gallardo fled to his brother's home in Deming, N.M. But there, too, residents in the town of 11,000 organized a march on the brother's house. Gallardo left town before the Sunday rally.

THE LAW: About half the states--Washington included--have laws requiring sex offenders to register with a local police agency upon their release. But Washington goes further by granting each county the option of alerting its residents to the presence of a sex criminal. That option was included in a tough 1990 law spurred by the sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old boy and the sex-slayings of three youngsters.

Snohomish County alone has notified the public of 21 offenders in the past three years. More than 7,000 sex offenders are registered in Washington.

In California there is no blanket announcement to the community when an offender moves in, said Jane Blissert of the Los Angeles County district attorney's Sex Crimes Office, although released sex offenders must register with local law enforcement.

Word can get out about releases, since the victims and the original arresting agency are often informed. In Northern California, for example, residents kept convicted rapist Lawrence Singleton on the run from town to town after he was paroled. He is now believed to be living in Florida.

THE DEBATE: John Ladenburg, a county prosecutor in Tacoma, Wash., and one of the main architects of the state's notification law, said that the apparent arson at Gallardo's house was "an aberration." He said the law generally works as he envisioned it, and in his county: "We've never had so much as a rock thrown through a window."

But Jim Townsend, deputy Snohomish County prosecutor, said harassment may actually drive the ex-convict underground or out of state, where he will not be monitored.

"I'd be happier knowing where (a sex offender) was," said Dr. Fred S. Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore. "I'm not sure driving him out of town on a rail accomplishes" anything.

Washington officials defend their flyer as accurate. "This guy really focused on kids," said Gerald Hover, director of the state Sex Offender Treatment Program, noting that Gallardo made detailed drawings in his cell of sex acts.

In an interview with the Seattle Times before fleeing the state, Gallardo said, "Just because a person draws something, it doesn't mean that's what they want to do."

And others said the flyer invited a vigilante mentality.

"The visual format is close to that of a wanted poster," said John La Fond, professor of law at the University of Puget Sound. "The subtext, as it might have been understood by the community, is that you have to take the law into your own hands, that the ball is in your court. In effect it brings together the most combustible materials and sets a blowtorch to it."

His victim, now 16 and living in Florida, told the Seattle Times that she does not think Gallardo, who had been a family friend, is a threat. "I think he's learned his lesson," she said.

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