MY neighbor was a child molester.
I know because of the signs.
Michael Miletti's face, name and address appear on posters lining Wapello Street in Altadena, with the admonishment: "Leave Our Neighborhood Now Child Molester." Up since May, the signs are staked into lawns, taped to trash cans and nailed to tree trunks.
I live around the corner with my wife and 7-year-old daughter. Suddenly, an issue that had seemed abstract became deeply personal.
These days, convicted sex offenders can't hide. A state website lists 63,000 of them, searchable by name, address or ZIP Code.
The site, which includes child molesters and offenders whose victims were adults, evolved from the passage of Megan's Law a decade ago. Sex offenders must register their current addresses,something they wouldn't have to do if they had been convicted of dealing drugs, or even killing a person.
The database is meant to give parents, especially, information that will help them protect their children. But as my neighborhood shows, it can also open residents to fears and resentments they previously never had to confront. For some of them, there was only one solution: They would try to drive a neighbor away.
IT started in April with an anonymous mailer sent to houses on Wapello. The fliers pictured Miletti, 53, above the words "Registered Sex Offender Movement Alert."
Miletti had arrived a year earlier after marrying a widow who had lived for several years in a spacious Mediterranean house. Neighbors knew him mainly as a polite man who chatted with them while walking his two sheepdogs, Roy and Fiona.
After the mailer arrived, someone on the block checked out Miletti's court record. It showed that Miletti's 16-year-old daughter had turned him in to the police in 1993.
Miletti admitted repeatedly abusing his daughter -- police said she was first molested at age 6 or 7 -- and served three years in state prison.
Horrified, some residents began placing signs in an effort to warn others -- and perhaps to drive Miletti out.
"We want to ostracize him," said William Tell, 62, a retired businessman who lives across the street from Miletti.
My interest in the campaign against Miletti grew in the fall, when I did some reporting on Proposition 83, the ballot measure barring sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of parks and schools and requiring them to be tracked by satellite for life.
A few weeks before the election, I interviewed Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who expressed deep reservations about parts of the measure, including the residency restrictions and the high cost of global positioning system monitoring. "What documentation is there that this works at all?" he asked. "There hasn't been enough introspection."
Nevertheless, Cooley was officially a supporter of Proposition 83. He refused to say why, but politicians and consultants I spoke with explained it would be political suicide to be against such a measure -- candidates would be ruthlessly attacked as friendly to child molesters, they said.
The lone district attorney I interviewed who spoke publicly against the measure was one with a safe seat: San Mateo's James P. Fox. He said he personally thought the 2,000-foot rule is "a bunch of silliness." It "would give people a false sense of security," he said. "The vast majority of child molesters are not strangers; they are family members or family friends."
Miletti lives 850 feet from Farnsworth Park, a sprawling complex of playing fields, courts and a playground frequented by children, including my own. Proposition 83 passed overwhelmingly; several neighbors said they voted for it, expecting that Miletti would be forced out of the neighborhood. Both the attorney general and the proposition's authors say ex-convicts can stay put. But it has yet to be decided whether the restrictions will apply to past sex offenders if they move. A federal judge will take up the matter in February.
More than 30 houses line Miletti's block, and most of them have signs calling for him to leave. One of the homes at the end of the block belongs to Erik Hargrave, 40. He recalled the day he and his wife received the mailer. It came on his daughter's second birthday. His wife, who had recently given birth to their second child, burst into tears.
Hargrave and about a dozen neighbors met at Farnsworth Park's Greek-style amphitheater. There was anxiety over having a sex offender on a block with so many young children. They also discussed the potential effect his presence could have on property values and decided both to post the signs and create an e-mail distribution list.
Another of the anti-Miletti organizers, Joseph Llorens, the father of a 12-year-old boy, lives across the street from Hargrave. A manager for a utility company, Llorens, 44, had actually been a friend of Miletti's wife; he had joined her and her then-husband for Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago.
"I do not want him to harm children in our area," he said. "I cannot protect the whole world; my goal is just to get him out of our area."
Llorens and Hargrave once got into a heated exchange with Miletti over their signs. The two raised their voices in anger, while Miletti remained calm.
Llorens felt Miletti wanted to bait him or Hargrave into hitting him so he could make some kind of claim against them, he said. No blows were struck. Miletti also offered to tell his story, Llorens recalled. "I said I don't even want to know. How can you justify doing that to a 6-year-old?" Llorens told Miletti to go home, which he did.
THE neighbors' anger is understandable. But would Miletti's departure -- or keeping sex offenders 2,000 feet away from parks and schools -- make any of us safer? Without Miletti, Wapello Street would be molester-free, but there still are 34 other registered sex offenders in Altadena.
Altadena has long had a reputation as a live-and-let-live kind of place. An unincorporated area, it has fewer property restrictions than many cities. It has long been racially integrated. Political views vary widely -- my neighbors have told me they are Libertarians, leftists and conservatives, dropping conversational references to Bill O'Reilly and Emma Goldman alike.
Some of those who are most against vilifying Miletti live closest to him.
Wayne Weiss, 58, a documentary filmmaker who lives across the street, said he finds the signs unsightly. He thinks they so dominate the streetscape that the neighborhood could end up defined by them.
"They've got Christmas Tree Lane over there," he said, gesturing across Lake Avenue to the neighborhood famous for its holiday light displays. "Is this going to become Pedophile Lane?"
Hari Nayar, 48, and Ruth Landsberger, 47, who have two children ages 9 and 6, also live across the street. The couple don't know Miletti and his wife, and they don't feel their children are endangered. Sexual abuse typically is inflicted by family members or friends, they believe, as it was in Miletti's case. The state's Megan's Law website confirms their view, noting that 90% of child victims know their abuser, with almost half the offenders being a family member.
As they discussed their views with me, their 6-year-old listened in while their 9-year-old sat nearby reading "How The Grinch Stole Christmas."
The sign campaign "may not be teaching these guys good values," Landsberger said. "It is not teaching tolerance. It's more like vigilantism."
Alex and Jackie Bailey, retirees who live at the opposite end of the block from Miletti, also declined to post signs at their house. "You have to live with people no matter what," said Jackie, 64.
She said that about 30 years ago, a convicted murderer lived in the neighborhood, and his daughter played with their children. "You have to take care to protect your children and watch them. You can't stop kids from playing with each other ... we just kept our distance from the parent," she said.
The Baileys were among the neighborhood's first African Americans when they arrived in 1968. Alex, 69, said he sometimes wonders if the campaign against Miletti could descend to "the mentality that in the past caused my people to be lynched and now Arabs to be arrested and abused."
Hargrave said he is aware of such fears and has consulted with the sheriff's station to make sure the anti-Miletti efforts remain lawful. "We are not vigilantes," he said.
One of the primary claims against Miletti was that he had failed to register promptly at the Wapello address after his marriage. "If he had registered, I do not know if there would be such an uproar," Hargrave said. "It makes us think he's hiding something."
It turned out Miletti was registered at his former address in Sunland, where he continues to spend a few nights a week caring for his 80-year-old father. After his marriage, Miletti had registered his Altadena address as a secondary address, but it did not appear on the state website. He later amended his registration to list the Altadena residence as his primary address.
Sheriff's Det. Ruby Munshi, who monitors Altadena's sex offenders, said Miletti had complied with sex offender registration requirements. But some neighbors say Miletti should have registered his Altadena address as his primary one as soon as he got married.
Residents also were angered by reports that neighborhood children had been swimming in Miletti's pool. That turned out to be false.
MILETTI agreed, reluctantly, to meet me one evening to tell his side of the story. We spoke in his living room while his wife, who declined an interview request, stayed at a neighbor's house.
Miletti regularly invokes Jesus in conversation. One of the couple's cars has stickers declaring "Abortion Kills" and supporting Proposition 85, a failed ballot measure that would have required parental notification before a minor could get an abortion.
Heavyset, with a white beard, Miletti smiles easily. He never raised his voice in our three-hour interview, despite the obvious anxiety my visit produced. His wife was "freaked out," he said, by the prospect of their story appearing in the newspaper. He was too. "This article could ruin me," he said, noting that his house-painting business could collapse if potential customers learned of his background.
"If I apply for a job, I have to say I have a conviction. When they see 'continuous sexual abuse of a child,' who's going to hire me? So I have to work for myself," he said.
Miletti said he knew his abuse of his daughter was "something wrong, something I never should have done," but he wanted to explain the trauma he said triggered his crime.
Miletti grew up in La Crescenta and married his childhood sweetheart from Crescenta Valley High School when he was 19 and she was 18. They were married 20 years and had two sons and a daughter.
The wife suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. One day, when their daughter was 6, her mother walked into the Angeles National Forest in Sunland and disappeared. Her body was found several weeks later.
Miletti said his wife's death deeply depressed him and his children. He began to see his daughter as something of a surrogate for his departed wife. "It was a codependent thing," he said. "I had lost someone I loved. I needed someone to love. I was only thinking about me, not my children. It was all about me."
Miletti said he is generally not attracted to children. "I'm not trying to minimize it, but I don't identify myself as a pedophile."
His former father-in-law, Eric Lee, confirmed Miletti's account of his first wife's death. Lee said he believed his granddaughter, who lives in another state, would not wish to be contacted for this story.
Lee, 87, called the neighborhood movement against Miletti "a backlash that is completely out of hand.... I don't approve of the panic."
Miletti notes that his record is clean since his release from prison nine years ago. He feels that if his wife can accept his past, his neighbors should be able to -- or at least leave him alone.
"I admit I did something horrible," he said. "I went to jail for it. I did my time in prison. I should not have to be punished over and over again."
But supporters of measures like Proposition 83 contend that child molesters remain a threat even after they have served prison terms, citing studies showing that 40% of them re-offend.
I DID not enjoy meeting Michael Miletti. I wanted him to show more remorse. I thought a father who had harmed his child ought to outwardly display torment. Forever.
But perhaps his behavior reflected his having had 13 years to come to terms with his sins, while my expectations were based on learning of them only months ago.
In any case, Miletti's obligations are to the law, not to me. I know he has paid for his crime and has led a law-abiding life ever since. Yet I will keep my child away from him. That is good enough for me.
I know it's not enough for some of my neighbors. The signs remain on Wapello Street. Those who want Miletti out are planning pickets outside his house. They will not stop, they say, until he leaves.