We first caught wind of it through the neighbor grapevine, and during the annual National Night Out block party, an intrepid dad was brave enough, or incensed enough, to knock on the door of a longtime resident (a quiet woman who grew roses) and ask her if it was true: Was she married to a level-three sex offender who had just been released from a long prison term and come to live with her on our block?
The woman and her husband came down the street to speak to the rest of us — we stood with stone faces, our hot dogs cooling and forgotten, our hawk eyes half on our clueless kids who scrambled about on the lawn. It seemed unreal then to be standing on a sidewalk in the warm August dusk chatting with a convicted rapist.
It was true, they told us. Bob, I’ll call him here, had served 30 years in a high-risk penitentiary for rape (of an adult, he quickly qualified — his crime never involved children). He had taken advantage of every program prison had to offer, “had served his full term,” his “wonderful” wife had waited patiently for him (they had been married seven years into his prison term), and now he intended to live rightly, as a good citizen, walking, gardening, enjoying his wife. “I will try not to walk alone, at night, if that makes you feel better,” he offered, strangely. Please, he said, I hope you will give me a chance.
As a group, we were cordial, but not encouraging. We knew we couldn’t pick up torches and chase him off. The law, it seemed, was on Bob’s side.
As a newspaper reporter I have covered every community issue over the years — public meetings, neighbor disagreements, obscure roads reports, and funding controversies associated with the running of communities large and small. More than once I have been called upon to write about a group of neighbors concerned because a registered sex offender was moving into their area. I tried to paint a balanced view: I’d quote the worried neighbors and the statistics, including high recidivism rates for sex offenders, which supported their concerns. I’d talk to police and victims’ advocates, as well as to the offender’s support system if I could get access to those within it. And I’d quote the law, which allowed for the offender to live where they settled regardless of any yet-unproven concerns.
As an impartial observer who lives Somewhere Else, it is not so hard to cite our laws supporting freedom and “innocent until proven guilty,” to give the benefit of the doubt. The issue of where convicted sex offenders choose to settle never really hit home for me the way it did when Bob moved onto my own block last summer.
Being the skeptical former reporter, I wasn’t satisfied with Bob’s ten-thousand-feet version of events. That night, after the block party petered out on a worried note, I did some Internet research. What I found sent my heart dropping to the floor. Bob had been convicted of violently raping not one woman, but two. And during a commitment in a mental-health hospital, he had admitted to hurting many others.
The women he raped were strangers. He had trolled the neighborhood and peeped on them through windows, planning his attacks. Then he broke into their homes while they slept — one woman in a bed next to her young daughter. He held a knife to their necks and raped them.
Later, during treatment, doctors and therapists described Bob’s psychopathic profile. His assurances that his criminal urges were gone were actually sophisticated deceits, doctors warned in early reports, the summaries of which I located in a case file. He was so dangerous he was deemed untreatable. He “had served his full term” only because he had been denied parole repeatedly, labeled too dangerous to release. He stayed in prison until the law would no longer allow it. Because he had served so long, he was not even required to now serve parole.
Bob has been living a stone’s throw from me for the past ten months, surrounded by families and women, a block from the elementary school and six blocks from the high school. He walks the neighborhood with his wife every day, though his obesity and physical ailments keep his pace slow. I feel better because of his slowness.
My windows have new curtains, thick ones. My door is always locked, my alarm system set at night. My neighbors have a new network — we exchange emails and talk much more about anything and everything that concerns us. We have never known each other so well.
When speaking to my husband, I call Bob "The Rapist." To me, that is what he is, now and always. So far we have told our daughters only that they are not to talk to him, because he once did a very bad thing — he didn’t respect women’s bodies or privacy, he hurt them — and for a long time he had to stay in jail. As children whose worlds are cleanly divided into Good Guys and Bad Guys are wont to do, they secretly labeled him “the bad man.” If Bob stays, we will have to edit our story as our children grow. I won’t hide what he did. I won’t forgive it. I won’t bother him or target him in any way, but nor will I speak to him or welcome him to the next block party or loan him my gardening tools.
These small acts of defense are all I can do. The law might be on his side, but my sympathy never will be.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle mother of two girls and a former Seattle Times journalist who has written for newspapers and magazines around the West. She drives a sad minivan she has nicknamed “The Dumpster” that makes her feel like she is bitterly betraying her ten-years-ago self, and she cannot properly load the dishwasher. She loves her gardening/bicycle-commuting husband but thinks they need to go on more dates (she swears she’s going to find a babysitter this year). Her life is made complete by seven chickens, two hysterically barking dogs, a frail cat, and an obsession with cold sheets and scalding baths.