Special Report: Charges create unease over sex offenders in Laguna

Synonymous with art festivals and stunning beaches, Laguna Beach became the subject of unexpected attention in the fall, when a downtown rug store manager found himself accused of sexually assaulting women.

The charges against Saeid Boustanabadi Maralan raised concerns about how a registered sex offender could go about his business — some of his alleged crimes took place in the Sirous & Sons Rug Gallery at 222 Ocean Ave. — in such a closely knit commercial and residential village.

"[Crime] happens everywhere, but to have it happen right next door is kind of unsettling," Agnes "Aggie" Dougherty, a bookkeeper at the Marine Room Tavern, said at the time.

The case against Maralan, who has pleaded not guilty to rape, battery and a slate of other charges, underscores the fact that even in the age of Megan's Law, knowing the truth about your neighbor or shop employee remains elusive.

For a variety of reasons, some sex offenders' names appear on a searchable online database, and others don't.


Sex offenders in Laguna

Laguna Beach is home to 40 to 45 registered sex offenders, 21 of whom are publicly visible on the Megan's Law website that's compiled by the California Department of Justice.

But there are plenty offenders who are never identified on the site, which tends to track those who have harmed children or committed more serious crimes against adults. Convicted sex offenders not listed online are still required to register with police in their city of residence — but not necessarily where they work.

In the case of Maralan, for example, public records show he is registered in Laguna Niguel, where he lives. He was not required to register in the cities in which he worked, Laguna Beach and San Clemente.

Certain types of sex offenders — such as those who have single offenses of sexual battery, annoyance or molestation of a child — can apply to be excluded from registration, according to the Department of Justice. Others with single counts of incest — not including oral copulation, rape or possession of child pornography where the victim is known and more than 16 years old — can also apply.

However, as of this year, those with a risk assessment score that isn't low or moderately low can no longer be excluded.


L.B. offenders in compliance

All known sex offenders in Laguna Beach are properly registered, Laguna Beach police Sgt. Robert Rahaeuser said. Also, there are no sexually violent predators registered in Laguna, he added.

In 2011, six rapes were reported in Laguna Beach; Maralan is a suspect in one of them.

Four of the cases involved arrests. One case was dropped by the Orange County district attorney's office, and in another, the victim declined to prosecute.

The numbers are up from last year but are less than the last few years, according to police.

In 2010, five rapes were reported, but in 2009, there were 11. There were 10 each in 2007 and 2008.


Clusters near city limits

In 2010, Laguna police worked with parole officers to move sex offenders from a hotel in the 1400 block of North Coast Highway. There were four living there at the time; two were relocated.

It's undesirable to have multiple sex offenders concentrated in one area, Rahaeuser said.

Five sex offenders reside in the Club Laguna apartments at 350 Club Drive, according to the Megan's Law website. Until early February, there were six living there. Each lives on Cozumel Court.

Their offenses include lewd or lascivious acts with a child younger than 14 and oral copulation on a minor younger than 16.

"The sex offenders who reside in Club Laguna have not been designated as high-risk sex offenders and present no apparent problem to the other residents in this community," Rahaeuser said. "The Laguna Beach Police Department has never received a complaint about these individuals from their neighbors, and all are in compliance with their registration requirements.

"Ultimately, agencies — parole or probation — manage their placement."


'Every sex crime has a story'

Two registered sex offenders who reside in Laguna Beach agreed to talk about their experiences on the condition of anonymity.

One of them, a former professional in his 40s convicted of sex crimes against minors, said he's trying to move on with his life the best way he can. But he can't find a job, even though he has college degrees.

He said job inquiries are positive — until he brings up his conviction.

If it weren't for the support of his family, he said, he would be living on the streets.

He attends parole outpatient clinic meetings, which are similar to group therapy, and he said they've helped him tremendously.

When he first moved into his apartment, he told his neighbors of his sex-offender status. The majority have been kind, he said, but threats are sometimes posted on his door.

"Every sex crime has a story behind it, and not every sex crime is a heinous act committed against an innocent child," he said.

He urged neighbors who are concerned about someone near them who's on the Megan's Law site to talk to the sex offender in a non-confrontational way and ask him or her about any convictions, He said neighbors may be surprised by what they learn.

He said he can understand why some find Megan's Law helpful — it lists the names, addresses and offenses of some sex offenders. However, he said it could lead to a society where sex offenders lack the same rights as other citizens.

"[Megan's Law], in and of itself in a vacuum, can be a good thing, but in the context of contemporary society's view of sex offenses, it's a bad thing because it's one step closer to abandoning all constitutional rights for all people convicted of this sort of thing," he said. "If people reading this story don't think sex offenders have constitutional rights, they're flat wrong."

Another Laguna sex offender, also in his 40s, was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a child 14 or 15 years old.

"I took the rap for it," he said, admitting the offense was against a family member.

Now on disability and living in an apartment, he feels like his privacy has been violated. He's not allowed to associate with minors, and waving "hello" at a neighbor's child could get him in trouble.

When asked if he thinks he deserves a second chance, he responded: "Yes, definitely."


A lawyer's perspective

Dennis A. Fischer, a Santa Monica criminal appellate specialist and defense lawyer since 1966, opined that the current system is unfair to many sex offenders and is not a valuable use of tax dollars.

Fischer at one time represented Greg Haidl, a former Newport Harbor High School student who was convicted with two others in 2005 of drugging and raping a 16-year-old girl. He and his accomplices also filmed the act, which happened in the garage of his parents' Corona del Mar home.

"The law is inappropriate because it's one size fits all," he said. "There's such a broad range of sexual offenses, from the truly horrific to the one-night-stand-gone-bad situations."

Fischer said that up until the late 1990s, convicted felony sex offenders who had a lengthy period without recidivism, and who showed demonstrative rehabilitation, could petition for a certificate of rehabilitation from the court that convicted them.

Once the waiting period was satisfied, he said, the district attorney would investigate to make sure there were no recurrences and then could make a recommendation to the court. The governor would decide whether to issue a pardon.

Today, the process is even harder.

Felony offenders on the road to rehabilitation can no longer look forward to the chance of being relieved of their registration, Fischer said, but misdemeanor offenders can.

Those with single charges of annoyance of a child or rape have to register the same way a child molester would.

"They're all subjected to the same law, same lifetime supervision," he said. "Californians think they're being protected. They're not."

Fischer said additional law enforcement is needed to register and enforce restrictions on sex offenders who aren't committing new offenses.

He believes money should be spent on felons who require careful monitoring.

"There ought to be a way over time to earn the trust of the court and society, to not register anymore," he said. "It's a lifetime scarlet letter."

He also pointed out the fact that Jessica's Law, which voters approved as Proposition 83, encompasses all sex offenders, not just those who have committed crimes against children.

Once again, Fischer said wrapping all sex offenders up together is unfair.

He asked rhetorically how it's valuable to force individuals out of their homes, break up their families and make them face a lifetime of being ostracized if they haven't committed new offenses and have shown signs of rehabilitation.

"It's a terrible cost and burden to society that is deceptive, because we pay extra tax dollars and think that we are safer and more secure and are cutting down crime this way," he said. "There is no evidence to support that, no evidence that these people are dangerous to society or would repeat their offenses."


Other opponents

Jessica's Law was controversial when it was adopted.

Sex offenders on parole or registered at the time of the Nov. 7, 2006, implementation of the law are required to live at least 2,000 feet from schools and parks.

Prosecutors alleged that it could push many sex offenders to be homeless, thus making surveillance more difficult. And politicians from rural areas posited that it would force offenders out of urban centers and into their districts.

According to the Los Angeles Times, more than a third of paroled sex offenders in Orange County were homeless in 2010.

Opponents of the law also pointed out that 10% to 20% of sex offenders committed crimes against strangers. The majority of sexual offenses are committed by people whom the victim knows — about 90% of cases involving children and 80% with adults, according to the Department of Justice's website.

In 2006, the measure was said to cost the state about $200 million, according to a nonpartisan legislative analyst.

Fischer said no studies have shown whether the law has decreased recidivism or deterred new offenders.


Keeping watch

Because most sex offenders are on parole or probation, police must work with those agencies in their monitoring. However, the Laguna Beach Police Department conducts sweeps of those on probation and parole, which includes sex offenders, when time permits.

Police conducted two such sweeps last year, in February and July. The first sweep netted five arrests: one for an outstanding warrant, the others for parole violations.

Rahaeuser explained that sex offenders can be arrested for violations that aren't normally illegal, such as possessing pornography or non-pornographic images of children. He gave an example of an offender who was arrested last year; he used the name "Master" when he molested children and was not able to possess items with that name.

During a search, police discovered he had used the name in an online chat room and had it screen-printed on a T-shirt, which led to his arrest.


Countywide ban

Orange County passed an ordinance in April banning sex offenders from county recreational areas, such as parks and beaches. County officials urged cities to follow suit.

City Manager John Pietig said Laguna Beach police are monitoring the progress of other cities, such as nearby Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo, which have passed similar ordinances.

In Laguna Beach, all beaches south of the Montage are operated by the county and are subject to the law. The same goes for the nature trails, such as ones in Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park, Alta Laguna Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

However, police say the county ordinance is a deterrent but not easy to enforce. The only way police may know if a sex offender is violating the ordinance is if police recognize the offender or if the offender has a GPS tracking device.


What's next for Maralan

When it comes to rug store manager Maralan, there are legal reasons why he was able to work in Laguna without neighboring businesses and customers being aware of his status as a sex offender.

In Los Angeles County in 1999, he was convicted of indecent exposure and sexual battery on one woman and battery of another. According to L.A. County prosecutors, he received a one-year jail sentence in those cases, due to probation violations.

Maralan was then convicted in 2003 of sexual battery of two other women in Bellflower and consequently sentenced to six months in jail and three years probation, according to prosecutors.

Rahaeuser said it's possible that if Maralan were convicted today of those same crimes, he wouldn't be required to register as a sex offender.

Nonviolent sexual offenses, such as sexual battery or indecent exposure, do not always require registration, he said.

Examples of sexual battery include placing a hand on a woman's rear or touching a woman's breast without consent.

However, prior offenses — which Maralan had — and other extenuating circumstances can warrant sex-offender registration.

The current charges against him include two counts of rape, attempted rape, sexual penetration by foreign object, sexual battery, attempted oral copulation, indecent exposure and false imprisonment.

His alleged victim count, according to prosecutors, stands at 11.

Maralan's preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 14.

The charges have apparently brought an end to his employer's Laguna location. The Sirous & Sons Rug Gallery closed its doors in January.


Twitter: @joannaclay

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